An American Classic: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

From the desk of author Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy…..


            Reading became a favorite pastime early in life.  Before I learned to read, my parents and grandparents often read aloud to me, my mother with great enthusiasm and my father so tired from long days working in the packing house he often fell asleep over the book.  Once I could read, I read any and everything.  I read children’s classics and popular tales, biographies and fairy tales.  I graduated from stories like B Is For Betsy to Little Women and by the time I was in the fourth grade, I began reading selected adult novels.  One of the first was Gone With The Wind but soon after, I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the American classic by author Betty Smith.

            Since the protagonist of the story is a young girl, Francie Nolan, who dreams of becoming a writer one day, I was hooked from page one.  Although it depicted life in Brooklyn fifty years before my birth, the world of immigrants, poverty, and a child’s imagination touched a chord within me.  In the novel, Francie is the granddaughter of immigrants and I happened to be third generation American.  Two of my great-grandfathers made the trek to America, one from Germany, the other from England.  I grew up listening to stories about their lives from my grandmother who could tell a rich tale with no little skill.

            My blue collar neighborhood boasted tired old houses and although they weren’t the tenements of Brooklyn, we knew our own series of small stores and had our own colorful characters.  Like Francie’s family, we were Catholic.  I loved going to the library as did Francie Nolan and I had a golden, curly haired younger brother. 

            When I first read it, I had no idea what became the novel began as more of a memoir about Elizabeth Wehner’s, better known as Betty Smith, life.  I soon learned the movie based on the novel aired the night my mother went into labor with me and she lingered at home to see the end before she headed to the hospital.  Fortunately it happened to be just around the corner! 

            The film recently aired on Turner Classic Movies and I watched it.  It whetted my appetite for more and so I bought the novel once more.

            I recently read the novel on my Kindle and found I enjoyed it just as much as an adult.  I confess I’ve read it a few times in between my first experience and now.  The story remains rich and powerful.  It continues to resonate for me although now I also can identify with the adults in the story as well as with Francie.  Betty Smith brings alive the world of her childhood although I’ve read she often admitted she wrote it “the way it should have been rather than how it was.”  She still managed to convey the sense of poverty, of hopelessness and hope, of strong women who vow to prevail no matter what life throws at them.  Her images of a now vanished place and another time preserve it.  Since re-reading the novel I delved deeper into the work and Smith’s life.  I found that when A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was first published in 1943, it became an immediate bestseller.  I learned, too, that fans wrote to share with Smith how well she’d captured the neighborhood.  They knew the streets, the stores and the places.

            Although I don’t claim to have written an epic on the scale of Smith’s first novel, I’ve shared a few sections from my upcoming novel, due to release from Champagne Books on March 3, Urban Renewal with people from my hometown and neighborhood.  One lady told me I “brought her home” and another reader knew the exact trek my heroine takes when she comes home.   If, like Betty Smith, I’ve captured the essence of a place, then I’ve done something right as a writer.

            A Tree Grows In Brooklyn remains one of my favorite reads, a major accomplishment for a book which pleased me at the age of ten and continues to resonate for me decades later.  If someone should feel the same about any of my novels or stories, I would be honored.  Although Betty Smith has been dead for almost as long as I’ve read her work, I’m sure she would be pleased to think her somewhat biographical novel helped to spark another little girl toward becoming an author.


  1. Lee Ann, I must tell you how much I enjoyed this blog post! I also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at approximately age 10, and read it again during the past year, and I was amazed at the quality in the writing. I would not have recognized that as a 10-year-old, aside from the fact that I loved Francie's story. Reading it this most recent time was pure joy. Betty Smith was a fabulous author. Thanks for sharing the memories!


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