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Coming of Age in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn presents the problems of a child growing up, the coming of age when one meets challenges and overcomes obstacles. The protagonist, Francie Nolan, undergoes a self-discovery as she strives to mature living in the Brooklyn slum despite its poverty and privation. Thus, Smith's thematic treatment of the struggle of maturity has become for the reader an exploration of loneliness, family relationships, the loss of innocence, and death and disease.
One of the challenges of growing up is loneliness. As a small child living in Brooklyn Francie had no friends her age, the kids in her neighborhood that would have been candidates for friends either found her too quiet or shunned her for being different. Betty Smith describes on page 106 how most of Francie's childhood days were spent: "So in the warm summer days the lonesome child sat on her stoop and pretended disdain for the group of children playing on the sidewalk. Francie played with her imaginary companions and made believe they were better than real children. But all the while her heart beat in rhythm to the poignant sadness of the song the children sang while walking around in a ring with hands joined." As time went by and Francie got older she began to get to know a different kind of loneliness. Betty Smith narrates her feelings on page 403: "Spring came early that year and the sweet warm nights made her restless. She walked up and down the streets and through the park. And wherever she went, she saw a boy and a girl together; walking arm-in-arm, sitting on a park bench with their arms around each other, standing closely and in silence in a vestibule. Everyone in the world but Francie had a sweetheart or a friend she seemed to be the only lonely one in Brooklyn without a friend." Loneliness is one of the challenges we must all conquer as part of maturing and it helps us learn to be independent and overcome hardship.
Family relationships are a second problem faced by all in their coming of age. Francie loves her Johnny Nolan, her father, more than anything, she adores the way he talks and the way that he sings.
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A third challenge everyone must face, as they grow older is loss of innocence. Francie lost the first of her innocence between her eleventh and twelfth birthdays as things began changing rapidly for her. She began noticing that days flew by quicker and soon began realizing that the future was not as far off as she first suspected and would soon be a thing of the past. Francie's loss of innocence ruined many things for her like the theater, the childish games she once played, and many of the things she had formerly grown to love were quickly dismissed as foolish and comical. The final loss of her innocence however came with her first romance involving a man by the name of Lee Rhynor. Francie and Lee had only known each other for forty-eight days when they confessed undying love for each other. Francie promises to wait for Lee while he is away fighting in the war: "And he asked for her whole life as simply as he'd ask for a date. And she promised away her whole life as simply as she'd offer a hand in greeting or farewell." (Page 450). Francie is heartbroken and in turn loses the last of her innocence when she finds out that Lee returned to his home town and proceeded to marry another girl and that his so called passionate love for her had only been a cruel joke. Francie's loss of innocence transformed her into a new person as she began to look at the world in a new light and see things as they were and not what she wanted them to be.
Death and disease is another obstacle everyone encounters as they mature. The first time Francie encounters this idea is when she finds out that Henny Gaddis, her friend's brother, is dying of consumption. Francie is often told that Henny is dying but does not believe it because she reports him as looking well. However she is told over and over until the idea is ground into her mind as a thing that will happen in the far off future, but when he dies so soon it comes as a shock to her. The next exposure she has to death comes with the death of her father. Johnny Nolan had been an alcoholic and was drove into depression after finding out he had been kicked out of the Waiter's Union which he had took a lot of pride in being a part of. He died when he ran out in the middle of the night and caught pneumonia. Francie had loved her father dearly and felt alone without him. Francie's experiences with death and disease helped shape her as a person and build her character and ideas about life.
We are all shaped as people in our coming of age through are experiences with loneliness, family relationships, loss of innocence, and death and disease. You cannot escape growing up nor avoid, but you can learn from Francie Nolan and approach it bravely with as much maturity and courage as she did.