The best holiday scenes in novels are sometimes unexpected. While some of these scenes may seem incidental, the Christmas tree scene in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is anything but ancillary. Smith uses the sentimentality of Christmas to highlight the novel’s theme of tenacity.
Smith’s protagonist is the 10-year-old Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan, who is determined to rise above challenging circumstances of poverty, social class, and her father’s alcoholism. Coming of age novels like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good choices to use with students, but educators may be dissuaded from assigning the novel as a whole class read because of its length (443 pages). The reading level (Lexile), however, is 810, a reading level appropriate for readers grade 5 and up, although some of situations and language are more suited for grades 8 and up.
With all the attention to the practice of “close reading” to improve comprehension, it is possible to have students read a single chapter, such as this Christmas chapter (Ch. 27), independent of the novel. Sharing this chapter can help students appreciate Smith’s storytelling.
For purposes of brevity, the text has been truncated into sequential sections below along with four questions that educators can use.
- So what does Smith “say” in the opening of the chapter?
“Christmas was a charmed time in Brooklyn…You have to be a child to know how wonderful is a store window filled with dolls and sleds and other toys. And this wonder came free to Francie. It was nearly as good as actually having the toys to be permitted to look at them through the glass window. Oh, what a thrill there was for Francie when she turned a street corner and saw another store all fixed up for Christmas!…”
- The setting is in borough of Brooklyn; city streets
- Toys (dolls and sleds) for Christmas were in the store windows
- Francie did not have the money to pay for the toys she saw
2. What interesting or unusual words does Smith use is explaining Francie’s challenge ?
“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ’em at you.” This was literally true. At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest….If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree.”
- “Cruel custom” taking place on the “Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth”
- “they’d chuck ‘em at you”
- Forfeit; impact
3. How does the Smith play with language in the following section?
“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’
A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.
‘Aw g’wan. You’re too little,’ the tree man objected.
‘Me and my brother-we’re not too little together.’ She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round.
‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.
‘Shut your lousy trap,’ advised the man who held all power in that hour. ‘These here kids is got nerve.’
The others made a wavering lane… a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane.
- “Aw g’wan” captures the dialect of the tree vendor; the man who held all power in that hour
- “it was a human funnel”-metaphor
- “a girl with with starveling hollows in her cheeks”-descriptive imagery
4. So, what does Smith want the reader to understand?
For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go? …..”But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that, all the others would expect to get ’em handed to ’em. They’d all wait to get ’em handed to ’em on a silver plate…I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion….”Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to learn to give and to take punishment….”
At this point in the text, Chapter 27 is not an incidental Christmas event; instead, it stands as representing the novel writ large. Smith choses to use the internal monologue of a man heaving the last of unsold trees at two small children in a perverse act of charity on Christmas Eve to represent all the challenges Francie faces in the novel:
“As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, ‘It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!’
But Francie does not buckle:
“Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling. When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand.”
Students cannot help but admire Francie’s tenacity in confronting the physical force of the tree. Her determination is so powerful that she stands for two, “pulling him [Neeley] up fiercely” and standing “hand in hand”.
Francie wins the great tree and as she drags the enormous prize home with Neeley, they are cheered on by well-wishers from the neighborhood.
Smith closes the chapter by reminding the readers that this victory for Francie’s will be short-lived; the challenges of poverty will still be with her:
“There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the great tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one-too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. ….. she sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.”
True to type, Chapter 27 shares what all Christmas stories share, a miracle…with its element of mystery:
“Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!”
In reading this chapter, students may want to continue to read about Francie, who will, unlike the great tree, not be a prisoner of the tenement…her determination stands.