What “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” Taught Me About Survival

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Survival isn’t just a “someday” mindset – it’s how to insulate yourself from the elements, extreme deprivation, and nary-do-wells – at all times. Right now. It’s a complete awareness at all times in your life, but it’s also an extraordinary resiliency. It’s knowing the ultimate Truth that life is difficult – when it rains, it avalanches – and the most important tools you have are actually within.

It’s also the realization that when you cry, you cry alone. It’s a truth that when the bottom falls out from your life, you must roll up your sleeves and face it head on – there are no shortcuts, and yet you are silently expected to be resourceful. It’s resisting the temptation to outsource your care and survival the way most folks are conditioned to do at a frightening degree. It’s the drive to rise above the rest although they may be like the proverbial Grasshoppers in the Aesop’s Fable – and you’re busy building your little dirt tunnels wondering if it really pays to be an Ant.

It’s not just a bare-bones survivalism either. Who’s buying that gospel? Life is more than tactical gear and pretty bug-out bags. Otherwise, you use all your moments obsessing over your body’s survival and regret all the moments you didn’t actually live. Your spirit must be free, too. A life of bare-bones survival is for sure a life of “quiet desperation.” Your values and moral code and your family should always come first. Surviving means knowing how to laugh and delight in the joys of life, too.

Pondering these things and my own adversities has brought to mind a poignant novel I read years ago. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1943 about a poor family trying to make it in a Brooklyn apartment building in the early 1900s.

Little did I know that reading this gem of a book would stay with me as I faced the issues of growing up in poverty in the latter half of the century and after the housing crash, too. Just as in the book, the “American dream” isn’t awaiting anyone on a silver platter. But amazing possibilities are there if one will open their eyes to opportunity and live.

What the book is all about

The book centers around the Nolan family, second-generation Americans who inexplicably keep going despite all the pitfalls and temptations of life when you have so little. The protagonist of the novel is daughter Francie Nolan – most of the story stems from her thoughts, fantasies, desires, anger, ideals, and ambitions.

A “Tree of Heaven” tree sprouts up outside her window and keeps growing despite being in the middle of an urban environment. It thrives through the pavement alongside the building despite all attempts to destroy it. This, of course, forms the silent and beautiful metaphor of Francie Nolan throughout the book.

***Possible light spoilers ahead – look for the line where they end***

Francie (Mary Frances) is strong and ambitious and is thirsty for education and understanding. She is emotional, sentimental and determined. It is her observations that carry the reader through the story.

Francie’s mother is Katie Nolan – she used to be a romantic but hardship has made her hardened and pragmatic. Yet Katie keeps the family afloat by working extra hard as an apartment cleaner and strives to save money despite the father’s alcoholism. She pushes the children toward education which was considered the golden ticket toward the American Dream. The way out of a dirt-poor subsistence. Francie thinks that the traits she shares with her mother keep them both from understanding some important things about life.

Francie’s father is Johnny Nolan who is a talented, romantic, sentimental warm man who loves his family. He is a singing waiter but not only is his work unstable, he sadly drinks up his earnings due to his belief that he is a disappointment to his family. Francie admires her father greatly as a hero for his feelingness and willingness to pursue his love for singing. She shares her father’s love for art, ideals, and romanticism. She loves his openness and affection too.

“Neely” (Cornelius) is Francie’s brother who the mom favors more than Francie. He fits in better with the neighborhood kids than Francie who stands out as being a loner weirdo in a tough world. He later develops the talents of his father but isn’t as ambitious about education. He resolves to resist alcoholism.

Katie’s pragmatic survival actions leave a haunting mark on the reader.

She works day and night to carry the family through and is a driving force to getting the children an education. Johnny also plays a role in bettering their lives despite struggling with alcoholism. He brings joy and warmth to their lives whereas Katie’s hard-nosed ways make her less sympathetic to her daughter.

The Tin Can With Money

Katie has two paths she can take: spend money like there’s no tomorrow or become a frugal goddess. While Johnny struggles with alcohol, Katie makes two decisions that prove to help the family through major tragedy. 1) She buys life insurance for Johnny and the kids. And 2.) she nails a tin can into her closet floor, with a slot.

She begins putting all extra money into this tin can Clink! Clink! for which it is too difficult to get back out again. It would be so easy to burn up this extra money. Tragedy strikes! She must pry the tin can but her frugality proves to save the family from destitution while she brings a third child into the world. The children have jobs too but education is prime whereas other children in the same boat would be expected to keep working to support the family and drop out of school.

The tin can is iconic and makes the reader want to nail a can in their closet to start saving immediately!

A Cup of Coffee Wasted?

For any faults Katie has, she makes up for them by her constant vigilance for the betterment of her children.

The family has a coffee ritual that proves that survival is not about bare-bones existence. It has its own delight and pride, too.

The mother insists that every night, Francie pours out a cup of coffee right down the drain. This is so Francie doesn’t take on a poverty mindset and it instills in Francie that they always have enough to dump a cup of coffee. It gives the impression that they have a modicum of decadence if they can waste one cup of coffee. Another image that etches itself into the reader’s brain!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn poses a fine line for the reader.

Is it ever okay to lie?

Part of the resourcefulness of the characters centers on lying, with no moral qualms, almost suggesting that “the ends justify the means.” There’s at least one lie about their address so the children get into a better school district. Later on, Francie skips high school and starts college. These two scenarios are interesting because they would be highly unlikely today, and would result in severe punishments, too.

Is it better to be resourceful or honest to survive?

This is just something to ponder.

Principles are Priceless

Francie sticks to her principles even while a man she falls in love with, on leave from the services, tries to seduce her. It would be tempting for her to give in for a number of reasons, but she prevails only to find out he had a fiancé all along.

This could have proven to be a trap that kept her from a different life, a mirror of her mother’s teenage marriage to Johnny.

*** End Spoilers ***

The reader can relate to all the pitfalls awaiting people in poverty. Addictions, depression, luxury items, entertainment, bad purchase decisions, deprivation mindset, and inflated prices.

Suffice it to say that the image of the Nolans is much different at the end of the novel than it was when it started.

Resiliency Isn’t The End-All Be-All Thing

Nowadays people are fixated on resiliency as a way to withstand hopeless life situations. But the idea of resiliency during the quickening of the tech age is almost in and of itself a commercialized concept. Now there are books and videos and gurus who try to impart this trait even though it is wrought forth from adversity the way a diamond is from coal.

On another note, will our kids know real resiliency if our pain and adversity are constantly blunted with new drugs, virtual reality, and other stimulations? Real resilience would be going through our trials and simultaneously resisting the urge to blunt our experiences in the same way some of the characters in the book resisted alcoholism.

Acceptance is an important trait that the Nolan children had. (Read Daisy’s amazing profile on acceptance as a must-have ingredient for survival). Neither of the Nolan parents had a grip on acceptance. The mother had grim resignation and sheer determination for a better life at almost any cost. And the father could not accept his feelings of inadequacy and held self-fulfilling delusions that he was a failure to his family.

Despite the poverty and adversity-stricken childhood, the Nolan children accepted their life and had a happy childhood.

That inexplicable trait inside that keeps us going against all odds is actually…Tenacity.

Lots of people have it, but few actually execute it. Fewer still execute tenacity with grace, love, openness, warmth, and empathy.

Resiliency is withstanding and absorbing the stress of life. Tenacity is bench-pressing it.

The word tenacious comes from the Latin tenax, which means “tending to hold fast.” Tenacity is a type of all-encompassing persistence and courage in the face of opposition or danger.

Francie was the perfect meld of her parents and their own tenacity. But unlike her mother, she didn’t become shut-down or hard-nosed. Nor did she let her feelings, attitudes, sentiments, and fantasies carry her into bad choices or addictions like her father. She kept her heart, her principles and her tenacity, and exercised her wit and will to finally reach a lofty height.

Resourcefulness. Spirit. Wit. Will. Self-respect. Joy. Acceptance. Tenacity.

These are all gems I carried away from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and to this day I cherish them in the most important arsenal of survival that we all have budding inside of our hearts.

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Meadow Clark

Meadow Clark

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  • I read this book as an adult and got a tremendous amount out of it. Your summary and review were spot on EXCEPT for the comments about Frannie and the coffee. This is a critical point: every morning, each of the family members got a cup of coffee. Frannie’s brother drank his, but Frannie just let hers sit. Frannie’s brother demanded that if Frannie wasn’t going to drink it, it should be given to him, but Frannie’s mother insisted that the coffee was Frannie’s to do with however she wanted. Frannie always chose not to drink it and every evening it was poured down the sink. The important message was that Frannie’s mother recognized that this was one of the few things that Frannie could control in her life and she wouldn’t take that away from her daughter. Even under the harshest conditions, it’s important to have something that is yours and yours alone.

    • To VA Granny

      I had also read this book many years ago as a young adult and it has always been one of my favorites. One of the reasons being that I grew up in a large Irish family full of alcoholism so it hit me where I lived so to speak. Anyway, I am glad that you brought up the exception to the comments on Francie and the coffee. I remembered it just as you described. That cup of coffee was Francies’ to do with as she pleased. I believe that Katie was trying to make a not too subtle point to both of her children, i.e., that women also have rights and shouldn’t always have to defer to the male opinion – a concept not widely evident at the time in which this book was set. Also, I don’t think that Katie ‘favored’ her son over her daughter so much as ‘deferred’ to him because he was male and would by that ‘right’ have more opportunities in life than Francie would. A common attitude of women at that time.

      Thank you!

      • I also got the impression that Mom thought that Francie was both stronger emotionally and intellectually than her brother, so she (Mom) didn’t think her daughter needed as much maternal support. I have seen this in many “traditional” families throughout my own life. While basically very unfair, and psychologically hurtful to the children, in many cases, it resulted in the women becoming even stronger and maturing much faster than their more “favored” brothers.

  • Oh gosh there was so much good frugality/survival info in this book!

    The kids collect scrap metal for their weekly spending money, the way Francie uses her imagination to avoid spending too much of hers… Katie working as the apartment janitress in exchange for their rent, and the magic Katie could work with scraps from the butcher, an onion, and some bread.

    The book also pointed out the million little traps that women can fall into or be pushed into along the path to self reliance and emphasizes that a good education and the support of other women are what will get you there.

    A fine book, and always deserving of a place on the shelf!

  • I have not read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, but now I want to!

    I just finished reading “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah.
    It also is about survival in a brutal world. Two very different sisters in France during WWII.

    It will make you cry.

    Another favorite of mine is “Alas, Babylon”

  • Note the following is a plug for the place formerly known as Brooklyn.

    Since I have not read the book “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” what follows is more of my memory of Brooklyn. The book has great reader reviews as above so it is not my intend to distract from the encouragement it gives it’s readers. More accolades to it’s author for giving inspiration to people.

    Brooklyn wasn’t a bad place to grow up. The book was published in 1943 and a few years later in 1948 the film noir movie “The Naked City” came out. Putting aside the plot it was shot on the streets of New York City and shows actual children playing games like rope jumping and if I remember hopscotch. People sat on the front tenement stairs, stoop, watching the neighborhood. Doors were still left unlocked. Each morning bedsheets were hung on the clothesline to air out and the stoop was scrubbed clean.

    Back then Williamsburg was crowded from people leaving Manhatten Island. The next step was to go live on Long Island, uptate New York or later New Jersey. Then during the sixties the neighborhood went downhill. I went back to where I lived, a few districts away, there were bullet marks in the masonry that it looked like photos of Sarajevo. High taxes, a corrupt city government, Marxist PC working it’s way through Columbia University and the Teacher’s Union (it was the earlier educational system that gave hope to the main character symbolized by the tree of life) and drugs were some of the causes. Now there’s yuppies.

    Brooklyn was a community of various nationalities that got along.

    • … open ended esoteric question, since the tree in the book is Ailanthus atlissima, “the tree of Heaven” according to Wikipedia, and also maybe the symbol for the main character’s quest for education as ascendence (as I read the article above) then could the tree be the Tree of Knowledge through a female kabalah viewpoint?

      O.k., I grew up listening way too many times to “Stairway to Heaven”.
      (for those who did, just hold up your Bic lighter.)

  • Hi,

    This struck a note with me. In the past 10 years, we have faced so many challenges and somehow we have pulled ourselves out “by the boot straps.” In 2008, we discovered that somehow we had managed to get ourselves in debt where our non-mortgage debt was 200% of our take home income. A lot of this was medical debt. We “tightened” our belts, reduced as much as we could, and I changed from working part time to full time. It took 4 years to pay it off but we did and saved enough to pay cash for a new roof.

    Just in time for my husband to lose his job and the new job he found paid 50% of what he used to make.

    One thing we did was to have envelopes for anything we wanted/needed to save for: personal property tax on the cars; groceries; clothing (very important with two quickly growing children); car repairs; home repairs; camping (our one source of vacation and entertainment ) plus things that we knew were coming, like the new roof. We sold things, we did extra jobs, we saved every penny we could.

    We were barely making it on what we were bringing in when I earned a promotion and increased salary. That came with extra work and very long hours. Plus a request for me to compromise my morals. I refused and after several months of refusing, I was fired.

    We were back where we had been before only with less income. Then I had a fall in my kitchen and ended up with a life threatening injury. I spent almost 3 months in the hospital, had 7 surgeries, months of physical therapy and luckily we had wonderful insurance. I have permanent injuries to my left leg and now am on Social Security Disability.

    Last year our taxable income was under $3K. During all this time, we also had to move from our split level home where going in or out of the house was a new adventure in pain to a ranch style home where the bedrooms, laundry and kitchen are all on the same level. Yet another expense and an increased mortgage payment.

    Like Frannie in the book, I have a jar where I put any lose change until we encounter a time where we want something not in the budget. Like when I wanted to drive the 1500 miles to see my mother knowing that she would not live much longer.

    We have 2 children in college, luckily both have scholarships to help pay for it all. If I could take to anyone with young kids planning for their future, I would encourage them to read to their children, give them toys to encourage imagination play, and help them with homework once they enter school. Great grades and good academic habits will result in scholarships. My son’s 100% tuition scholarship is due to grades and test scores. My daughter’s scholarships are from lots of work applying for many scholarships. She also chose to attend a lower cost college to save money. My son will graduate debt free, our daughter will have some college loans.

    My husband turned 65 this summer and wants to retire in the next 18 months. We are working on our budget, plus my goal of having 2 years of food on hand.

    My husband has a huge list of things he wants to do to our new home, which was a “fixer-upper” when we bought it. I think he may have to have a post-retirement, part time job with one of the building supply companies to get a discount on everything he needs.

    We will make it through this next phase just like we did all the other challenges in the past 10 years, one day and one dollar at a time.

  • Love, love, love this book! I have owned a copy since I was about 10, my whole life. So many good life lessons in it– Katie was always a role model for finding ways to raise a family when you don’t have help from your children’s father. Amazing the things that happen in your life that you tried so hard to avoid! I was always fascinated by the description of the meals that they regularly ate. Even reading it as a kid, I was kind of horrified to realize that what they ate the most of was bread. Not protein, or grains or even fruits and vegetables, but cheap bread. And yet they did it, and survived. The part where Johnny dies regularly breaks my heart.

    Thank you for bringing this wonderful book to the attention of some prospective new readers!

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