A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Plot Summary
Francie Nolan, a young girl raised in the poor section of Brooklyn, Williamsburg, grows up in the pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from a sickly infant to a capable, intelligent young woman. Francie's eleven-year old world is described in impeccable detail. She collects junk with her little brother, Neeley, and turns it in for pennies at Carney's. She frequents the library where she reads a book a day, and reads one page from the Bible and one page from Shakespeare each night before bed.
Francie's story shifts to her parents' courtship. Katie Rommely and Johnny Nolan were married in 1901 after a short courtship in which Katie stole Johnny from her best friend, Hildy O'Dair. Katie gives birth to Francie within the year, and Neeley one year later. They struggle to stay afloat with no money, no education, and two children. Johnny is a singing waiter who occasionally works between his drinks, and Katie works as a janitress. They must move houses several times because of their loud noise and Katie's older sister Sissy's sexual reputation. They move from Bogart Street to Lorimer Street to Grand Street and learn to play piano. The two children start grade school together so that they can keep each other strong and share each other's company. Neeley is popular and good-looking, just like his father, and Francie is more homely and solitary. She is extremely interested in books and writing and works hard in all of her classes, despite the discrimination she feels for being poor. Francie convinces her father to help her go to a better school across town by telling a white lie that she lives in a house there. She loves that school and is one of the best writers in her class.
Johnny tries to show his love to his children, but does not have steady work and can often have poor judgement. He tries to quit drinking, but is dies on Christmas after contracting pneumonia. The family buys an insurance policy and buries him. Francie and Neeley struggle to move on with their lives; however, Francie's writing is affected by the tragedy. Her writing scores decrease and she sinks into a slight depression. The kids proudly graduate from grade school. Katie continues to work hard, but with a third baby coming, she knows that both children cannot continue school. Neeley goes on to high school because he does not want to and Francie enters the working world because Katie knows she will find a way to return to school. She works in a factory and then moves on to the newspaper bureau in Manhattan, where she is promoted to the coveted position of city reader at twenty dollars per week. Katie gives birth to Laurie several months after Johnny's death and the family survives well on Francie's salary. Evy's husband, Willie Flittman, gets kicked by a horse and suffers from low self-confidence. He runs away with the hopes of becoming a one-man band. Sissy gives birth to a baby boy with the help of a hospital and a doctor. She re-falls in love with her husband, Steve.
Francie takes summer school courses at Brooklyn Heights College, where she meets and is enamored with Ben Blake. They get along extremely well, however, are not romantically involved because of the large age difference and Ben's motivated lifestyle. Francie goes on a blind date with Lee Rhynor, a visiting marine, and falls in love with him quickly. She promises her life to him, only to receive a letter after he leaves saying that he married someone else and played a trick on her. She is devastated and takes comfort with her mother.
Sergeant McShane proposes to Katie and offers his love and financial security for her family for the rest of their lives. They get married and he adopts Laurie. Neeley continues his education and Francie goes to the University of Michigan with the promise of a ring from Ben and their possible future together. Francie looks out the window to see another young girl, reminding her of herself seven years earlier. The tree that grows in the yard has been cut down; but a new tree growing from the stump stands in its place.