Elisabeth Lillian Wehner was born December 15, 1896 to German-immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in one of the poorest districts, but managed to get into Girl’s High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a prestigious school attended by the likes of Lena Horne and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
Still don’t have a clue who Elisabeth Wehner was? She later married George H.E. Smith, moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he attended Law School at the University of Michigan. Smith gave birth to two daughters. Once they were in school, she entered classes and excelled in journalism, literature, writing, and drama, earning the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award.
In 1943, Harper & Brothers published her first book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn under the pen name, Betty Smith. She wrote what she knew – her life experiences, fictionalized. And she did a very good job of it. The book was an immediate success. The story was made into an award-winning movie and stage musical. She went on to write other books and stage plays.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written in five parts, or “books”. These days, it would probably be a series of five books. How things have changed. The lead character, Francie Nolan and her younger brother, Cornelius “Neeley” Nolan, live with their parents, Johnny and Kate in a series of tenement apartments in the early 1900s. Book II actually jumps to the past and tells the story of Francie’s Austrian-immigrant mother and Irish-immigrant father’s meeting and subsequent marriage.
Francie’s mother is intent on making a better life for her children, which means education. The poor woman works several jobs, taking in wash and scrubbing floors. Her good-natured, but alcoholic husband is a waiter and aspiring musician. He dresses well, but can’t keep a job. Add into this mix, Kate’s sassy sister (Sissy), whose reputation threatens to drag them all down. Between Johnny’s lack of fortitude and Sissy’s lack of self-control, well, life is difficult. And the children end up paying for it.
They finally settle into another apartment in a very poor section of town. It is located next to a school, where the children attend. Francie constantly dreams of something better. Desperate to accomplish this, her father lies about their address, and gets her enrolled in one of the best schools. When her mother becomes pregnant with another child, he falls into a deep depression and dies on Christmas Day. A life insurance policy keeps them afloat until after the baby’s birth, when mother can take work again. Francie graduates from school and deals with the emotional pain of losing her father.
In the years following high school, Francie hopes to attend college, but must go to work instead. She earns enough to go, but chooses to send Neeley, since she knows he would never do it on his own. World War I brings many changes, including the loss of her job. She meets a young man who lies to her and breaks her heart. Her mother agrees to marry a former neighborhood policeman, Officer McShane, who has become a wealthy businessman and politician.
In the final section of the novel, Francie finally attends classes at university. After her heart was broken, she formed a deeper bound with a young man she’s known for sometime. Her mother marries McShane, so they’re moving to his home. Francie says goodbye to some of her favorite childhood haunts and notices the tree that has re-sprouted and grown tall, despite all efforts to destroy it. She realizes how, in refusing to give up, her life is like this tree.
Many of you will recognize this story because of the award-winning movie of the same name, released in 1945. Peggy Ann Garner won the Academy Juvenile Award for her excellent portrayal of Francie Nolan. James Dunn won an Academy Award for best supporting role, for his portrayal of Johnny Nolan, Francie’s alcoholic father. Dorothy McGuire played Katie Nolan and Joan Blondell played Katie’s sassy sister. Officer McShane was aptly played by Lloyd Nolan.
I loved this book the first time I read it, when I was fifteen years old and have since read it twice more. It’s a gritty tale of woe, like so many during this era in our nation’s history. Like Grapes of Wrath, it touches the heart and opens our eyes to searing pain. But it is not depressing. The bright moments of familial love keep you afloat. That and Francie’s ability to overcome every obstacle thrown at her. Life, done well. Hard work produces excellence.
Betty Smith helped develop this story for the musical stage as well. Though she published other works, none compared to this one. Her other books: Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), Joy in the Morning (1963). Joy in the Morning was so badly edited and cut to pieces by its publishers, even the readers noticed. How many can identify with that?
So, huge success with first book achieving classic status––something writers all dream of. And there is something to be said about longevity. If you’re a historical writer looking at this era, I would highly recommend reading this book. I believe its message is important in a day and time when education is paramount and expensive. Low income often means not only physical lack, but lack of education as well. A story like this one is important because it gives hope.
For more information on the life of Betty Smith: http://web.njit.edu/~cjohnson/tree/bio/bio.htm
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Today’s Prompt: When Pauline’s eyes locked on the first edition copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her breath caught in her throat. Could she really be so close to the end of her journey? With trembling fingers, she lifted the novel and opened to page forty-seven. There it was, as promised…
Thanks for reading!