Book Review | A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

13 July 2018

It's been so long since I have read a book that blew me away. That left me wounded and raw, yet full hearted and hopeful. That gave me perspective and revealed parts of myself that I didn't even know existed. That captured me so completely. I almost thought no book ever would touch my heart quite like that again, until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Under any normal circumstances, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the type of story I would've expected to like that much. It's a coming of age story following an eleven-year-old girl, Francie Nolan, and her family in early twentieth-century Brooklyn. I expected a light feel-good story. Enjoyable, but nothing profound. There was no way I could have predicted how much this book would impact me when I started to read it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the type of book that changes your life.

It's the type of book that settles in your soul without you realizing it. It speaks softly and slowly. It shows the difficulties of life, like death, starvation, and the pain of growing up too fast in a gentle way. It doesn't brush over hard topics or look at them through nostalgic, rose-colored glasses. The author, Betty Smith, writes with brutal truthfulness and doesn't hold back. But she is able to deal with it all with a beautiful childlike wonder and respect so it's not a burdensome task to read.

It's not better to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way. -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Even though there's a century between the events in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and when I read it, it is one of the most real and relatable stories I've ever encountered. The hardships feel so real and written in such a raw, vulnerable way. I really felt like I was growing up along with Francie and was experiencing the same things she was going through. It makes sense to think that this book is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's own childhood in Brooklyn.

This is a book that goes at the speed of life. It can probably seem slow and uneventful to some, but to me, the pacing was perfect. It has a subtle plot, but it is mostly a story about living and growing up, and is driven by a cast of remarkable, unforgettable characters.

I felt so much for all the characters and grew so attached to them. My heart broke for Johnny as he beat himself up for not being good enough to support his family. I admired brave, hard working Katie and how she raised her children well against all the odds. I adored Aunt Sissy and her big, motherly heart who always had good intentions in everything she did.

I also don't think I've ever seen myself so clearly in a character as much as I do in the way the main character, Francie Nolan, thinks and acts. Of course, there are stark differences comparing Francie's childhood to mine, but despite all of that, I connected with her so much. I learned so much through her and how she changes throughout the whole novel.

Above everything else, this is a book that is extremely contemplative. It's not the type of book that takes you for a thrill ride. It's not a book that will grab everyone instantly from the first page. It's a book that needs time to root itself in your mind. You think about it far more after you've finished it than while you were actually reading it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has quickly become one of my all time favorite books. I can barely think about it without an ache in my heart and the urge to just continuously read it on an endless loop. It is one I have no doubt that I will pick up again in the near future.

Rating: ★
Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry... have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere -- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost. -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


  1. It sounds really good and chill but I don't know if I'll really enjoy it, you know?

    It seems both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

    1. Yeah I totally understand! I thought the same thing when I started it, but it completely blew me away! But of course, I wouldn't recommend reading a book you really don't think you'd like. If you ever do pick it up I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

  2. Okay this is a book I want to read. Some of my favorite books are the ones that don't have big, epic plots - but subtle, easy ones. Heartfelt stories, ya know?


  3. It's incredible how much we can relate to a book that's set in circumstances/time periods so vastly different to our own - I think that's the real power in reading diverse books generally, and how they increase empathy the way that not much else can. I love the first quote you've pulled out: "its struggle to live is making it strong". There's such poignancy and beauty in that alone! Thank you so much for sharing, fantastic review <3