A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the father in the family dies. The mother and daughter have a difficult relationship, though they come to terms in the end. The family has a hard time communicating directly with each other. One of the characters drinks heavily.
What's the story?
The Nolan family lives in a Brooklyn tenement, struggling to rise from poverty. Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) adores her father, Johnny (James Dunn), a dreamer with a drinking problem, and respects but resents her down-to-earth, practical mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire). Francie dreams of going to a better school in a wealthier neighborhood, and her father makes it possible by telling the principal that she's moving in with a fictitious wealthy aunt. But when Katie gets pregnant again, she decides that Francie should leave school. And then Johnny dies. Devastated, Francie is angry with her mother, feeling that her mother didn't love Johnny enough and doesn't love her enough either. But when her mother has the baby, Francie sees that she loves them both and that Katie hates having to be practical and "hard." A kind policeman asks permission to court Katie, and Francie knows that their life will be easier, and that her father and what they shared will be with her always.
Is it any good?
James Dunn won an Oscar for his masterful portrayal of Johnny Nolan in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, which is based on the novel by Betty Smith. The Nolans have a great deal of love but a lot of difficulty showing it. Although they clearly love each other, Johnny and Katie have too many shattered expectations to accept tenderness from each other, as we see when he comes home with the food from the party and sees her with her hair down, and when she tries to tell him how much she likes hearing him sing "Annie Laurie."
They also have trouble being honest and direct about their circumstances and their feelings. They have to move to a cheaper apartment, but insist -- to themselves and to everyone else -- that they're doing it to get more sunlight. When Katie decides that she wants her sister back in her life, she sends the message via the insurance collector. When Francie tries raising the subject of the school she wants to attend in a roundabout way, Katie tells her to speak more directly. But Johnny lets her tell him in her own way, and, over Katie's objections, makes it possible for her dream to come true. Francie has a hard time understanding that Katie loves her and relies on her, until Katie is in labor and almost does not know what she is saying. This is a good opportunity to talk about the ways that families do (and do not) communicate with each other. Older kids may also want to discuss the impact that Johnny's drinking and unreliability had on Katie and why it was different for Francie.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about what Francie's teacher meant about the difference between imagination and pipe dreams. What does the title refer to? Why did the members of the family have such a hard time talking to each other about what mattered to them? Why does the family use the word "sick" to describe Johnny's alcoholism? Why does Johnny seem so sad when Francie talks with him about being "sick"? Why was it so important to Kate that the death certificate be changed?