|Katie [center] in the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945|
Katie Rommely is one of four daughters born to Austrian immigrants. Her mother, though illiterate, is full of the stories, myths and legends of the old country. Katie relies much on her mother’s wisdom, though her father is a curmudgeon who won’t allow English spoken in his house.
Katie does learn to read. She falls in love with John Nolan, a sweet Irish singer and dancer, stealing him away from her best friend. They spend their first year cleaning a Brooklyn schoolhouse together and having fun. But when Katie becomes pregnant first with Francie, and then with Cornelius (Neeley) it becomes clear that Johnny is not cut out to be a provider. He drinks with or without provocation. When he causes a ruckus trying to dry out, Katie turns to her sister Sissy for assistance. Sissy coaxes him back to health with sips of whiskey, but the Nolans move because Katie is too ashamed to stay in the neighborhood.
Katie finds work cleaning her own and two tenement buildings nearby. At her mother’s suggestion, she reads a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare to her children every night. She is determined that her children will do better than she has. The family lives from hand to mouth and some nights there is no food at all. At these times, Katie tries to make a game of it, telling the children they are explorers down to their last provisions. Katie allows them to throw away food also, knowing it gives Francie a feeling of luxury to pour her coffee down the drain. Some nights Johnny brings home lobster and caviar from his singing waiter jobs and Katie and Johnny talk the night away.
A piano is left in a house they are renting, so Katie gets her neighbors to teach her children and herself to play. As Francie develops a “bad case of growing up,” Katie answer’s Francie’s questions honestly. When a known rapist and murderer tries to get Francie in their entryway, she freezes, but Katie comes down the stairs with a gun and shoots him.
When Katie becomes pregnant again, Johnny loses himself, dying of pneumonia. Katie gives him a fine funeral, paid for with the insurance money. She does not know where to turn for money, but the children get odd jobs and this keeps them through her pregnancy. Little Laurie is born with the help of her sisters. Francie and Neeley graduate from eighth grade and Katie manages to give them a party at an ice cream parlor.
That summer, Francie begins full time work as a flower maker, then as a reader at a clipping service. She says she is two years older than she is, but she is so fast she is given the top job. When school starts, Katie insists Neeley go, but Francie continues working. Katie knows that Francie will succeed on her own, though Neeley needs more help. He is a good ragtime piano player by this time. When the clipping service fails, Francie works as a teletypist. They are no longer hungry and have money to spend, but Katie puts some of the money aside for Francie’s education.
Katie and McShane, a policeman, keep an eye on each other for years. When his wife dies and he quits the force, McShane asks Katie to marry him. Her youngest daughter Laurie will take his name, but he doesn’t expect to replace Johnny as Francie and Neeley’s father. Francie refuses to go to high school as she feels to old for it. Instead she qualifies for college and departs for Ann Arbor, while Katie, Neeley and little Laurie move into McShane’s big house. Katie will no longer need to clean houses.
“Smith’s achievement is to make [Katie’s] steely resolve, her fierce sense of reality, her struggle with her own character, not only comprehensible, but admirable,” said Robert Cornfield in a 1999 review of the book. Betty Smith told her daughter she is writing her childhood “as it should have been.” The ingredient which Smith lays on thick is love. Though poverty affects everything, the characters are loving and faithful to each other. Katie is sad she has learned Johnny is worthless, but she still loves him and fosters love of him in her children.
I myself came late to the reading of this book. The thickness of the relationships portrayed, the holidays, the songs people sang together, their pride combat the sadness, sordidness and dirt of the early immigrant melting pot. Telling it as straight as she can, Betty Smith’s prose builds rather than destroys. An aspirational story appropriate to the times.