Please click on key word A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for previous installments in this series.
In our present time when high school is a given and adolescence a time for teenagers to fool around, hang out, and be eased into adult responsibilities, the story of Francie’s sudden growing up is a little shocking. She finally gets to cross the Williamsburg Bridge to work in the city at the age of fourteen, pretending that she is sixteen. She is disappointed in both the city and the life of working with adults. Recognizing how much this world is changing her, she says that if she does not enter high school within one year she will be too old for it.
There is an important scene in which the family attends mass on Christmas morning, “for the repose of Johnny’s soul”. She is wearing fancy lace underwear that she has bought herself, and regrets the decision because she is very cold. She dwells on the details of the decorations in the church, as well as the symbolism they represent. She believes “with all her heart” in the Holy Eucharist. She loves her religion for its beauty and mystery. She is sorry for sometimes saying she doesn’t believe in God, because she does, and she wishes she could be a better Catholic. She has truly come to peace with both God and Johnny’s death.
Another moment worth remembering is the headline declaring war in 1917. She is working as a newspaper reader and knows this moment will change everyone’s life. The way she purposely stamps this headline into her mind shows she truly has the mind of a writer.
On New Year’s Eve, Katie tests her children by offering them alcohol as a toast. She wants to see if they can be trusted to use the substance wisely. They recognize it for what it is, take it, and say they don’t like it. Then they share a warm moment on the roof. This is important because it shows the children can value their father’s soul and yet not repeat his mistakes.
Aunt Sissy gives birth to a healthy baby, after having ten stillbirths. This is her first baby born in a hospital, and the first time she hears the word “oxygen”, which saves the newborn’s life. I had to wonder if those first ten babies could have been saved by oxygen as well. How sad for her – and how wondrous that she can finally have happiness! She turns into a whole new person, becoming a devout wife after living as a flirt her entire adult life. Francie misses the old Sissy in a way, but has to be happy for her. (I thought back to when she dislikes the quiet, thoughtful man that Johnny became when he was not drinking. We truly do become accustomed to our miseries.)
It was hard to believe that Katie cannot find a way to send Francie to high school. She has to send one of the children to work, and chooses to send Johnny to school because he doesn’t want to go to school. This strikes Francie as unfair, but Katie explains that she knows Francie will find a way to attend school because she wants it so much. Katie is very smart but very tough!
Francie does find a way, by attending summer college courses. (I felt so proud of her!) She has found a women’s college where she can go to school for free. She is studying her brother’s high school textbooks so that she can pass the college entrance course.
When Sergeant McShane proposes to Katie, it is like a breath of fresh air for the family. They will never have to worry about money or security again. Katie truly does love him, and accepts for only romantic reasons. I thought back to Francie’s disgust of plays in which a hero comes to the rescue at the last minute. He is offering to pay for the children’s college after she has already found a way to send herself. She does not have to rely on this hero – but it is nice that he came, after all!
Francie and Neely pity their sister, Annie Laurie McShane, because she will grow up privileged and miss out on all the “fun” they had!
(I’ll leave the bit of romance experienced by Francie to the next installment.)
Follow me as I explore the rest of this novel, whether or not you have read it or plan to. “A Tree in Brooklyn” has become a commonly used metaphor in American life. In America, you are what you make your life to be.