No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
This is the tree of the title and is called ‘the Tree of Heaven’ by some people. It is a figurative expression of hope in a place that is marked by poverty and neglect.
She grieved when her children had to leave school after the sixth grade and go out working. She grieved when they married no-account men. She wept when they gave birth to daughters, knowing that to be born a woman meant a life of humble hardship.
These sentiments are felt by Mary Rommely, mother of Katie and grandmother of Francie. Mary recognizes that a life of poverty and hardship is all the more difficult for women.
The secret lies in the reading and writing.
This quotation is Mary’s crucial advice to Katie when responding to her question about how can one escape the cycle of poverty. Mary insists that education is the means by which the cycle can be broken. She tells her daughter to read the Bible and Shakespeare to her children everyday.
You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great - knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.
This follows on from the previous quotation and Mary’s advice about reading the Bible and Shakespeare. By reading such works, the children will expand their minds and imagination. They will learn to raise their expectations.
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.
Katie makes this point after someone tells her that it would be for the better if the sickly baby, Francie, died. Katie draws on the example of the tree, which grows in the grating (without any sun on it), as a metaphor for survival in an impossible environment.
The sad thing was in the knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all people in Brooklyn seem lost when the day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn’t give you warmth when it shines on you.
This quotation comes at the end of Chapter Thirteen and initially makes reference to the ‘bums’ who sing for pennies. All they have in the world is the ‘nerve to sing loudly’. Here, the point is made that poverty has a powerful effect and grinds people down.
A person who pulls himself up by the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel climb up.
This reference comes at the point of the novel when Francie is denigrated by a nurse and doctor when she comes for her vaccination. She is dirty from playing in the mud, but they both presume she is unclean because of her poor background. The nurse used to live in the slums, but she chooses to forget her upbringing and agrees with the doctor that it would be better if ‘they’ (the slum dwellers) were all sterilized.
Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09.
Here, Smith uses the opportunity to makes an outright attack on the public education system of this time. The novel also stresses at this point how the cleaner, wealthier children were preferred over those caught up in the poverty trap.
She had the same thought Katie had had seventeen years ago dancing with Johnny - that she’d willingly accept any sacrifice or hardship if she could only have this man near her for always. And like Katie, Francie gave no thought to the children who might have to help her work out the hardship and sacrifice.
This point is made whilst Francie is dancing with Lee, her first love. She barely knows him, and this quotation highlights how romantic love takes precedence over reality. It also highlights a similarity between mother and daughter and offers the possibility that the cycle of poverty may continue when love blinds one from common sense.
A new tree had grown from the stump, and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again.
This final reference to the tree that grows in Brooklyn frames the novel as it is also referred to in the initial pages. This new tree is a figurative reminder of hope once more and, even though it has been chopped down, the new one continues to thrive. It also symbolizes Francie’s ability to adapt and thrive in impossible circumstances.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Top Ten Quotes