A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Children in Brooklyn love Christmastime. One year, Francie and Neeley participate for the first time in the tree tradition. Every year, the man at the tree lot gives away trees at midnight on Christmas Eve. To receive one, a person has to catch a tree that the owner hurled at him or her, and remain standing. The man throws the largest first, and Francie pipes up, asserting that she and her brother will try to catch it. In the split second before he throws, the tree man agonizes over his action. Neeley and Francie remain standing, and proudly bring the ten-foot tree home. A long monologue of Katie's thoughts tells the reader that this event makes her all the more committed to the children's education, and figuring out a way to help them out of this cruel life.
On Christmas Day, the family exchanges humble presents, and Francie feels hurt when Katie makes more of a fuss over Neeley's present than hers. The narrator then records the story of Francie's second lie, which took place at a Christmas charity event for poor children. A rich girl named Mary is giving away a doll, and wishes it given to a poor girl named Mary. All of the poor Marys are too proud to speak up, and when Francie sees the gift going to waste, she lies about her name. Later, Francie learns that her full name is Mary Frances Nolan, and she feels relieved of her guilt.
Time starts to pass more quickly for Francie, which happens when people grow up. Henny's death always seemed a long way away to her, and then he dies, and the future quickly turns to the present. Growing up has still more consequences. Everyday pleasures do not seem so special. She begins to realize how people consider her father, and she no longer finds pleasure in the game her mother makes up to help ease hungry times. She finds theater plots too contrived. This last fall from innocence inspires her to finish a play that had a dissatisfying end, and she decides she will write plays.
One day, Johnny gets a "notion" that his children should see the ocean, and takes them fishing along with a neighborhood three-year-old, Little Tilly. Little Tilly is Gussie's younger sister who is famous in the neighborhood since he refused to stop feeding from his mother's breast. Finally, his mother painted her breast black with a scary red-lipstick mouth on it, and scared her son away from breast-feeding for good. At the beach, Johnny has a couple of drinks before getting in the boat. He misses the boat all together, and falls in the water. The children try to suppress their laughter after Johnny drenches his entire tuxedo. When the four finally go out fishing, they don't catch anything, but get very sunburned and feel nauseated after eating a big lunch. Little Tilly falls in the water on the way back, and on the trip home, all three children throw up. The fish Johnny buys have rotted, and Johnny feels disappointed the sea was not at all the same as it was in the songs he sang.
The story of the Christmas tree continues to develop the motif of falls from innocence. When Francie takes Neeley to get their vaccination, Katie rationalizes that her children would have to learn the brutalities of the world. The same is true when the tree man throws the spruce at the children. He finally decides to throw when he tells himself that the children have to get used to a cruel world. The narrator opens Chapter 27 by describing all the charms of Christmastime that make Francie almost too excited to bear. By juxtaposing this introduction with the cruel tree-throwing custom, the author is showing the irony of the way the world treats children. From earlier chapters, we have learned that the shopkeepers make much of their money off children. The tree man thinks that if he just gave the trees away, then next year no one would buy one. The lure of material things (toys, trinkets or trees) creates a situation in which the children are at the mercy of adults who want their money. The author demonstrates that economic hardship drives the exploitation of children.
The omniscient point of view allows the narrator to enter the mind of both the tree man and Katie in Chapter 27, who both give commentary on the action of the story. This point of view allows the narrator to present the tree man as a sympathetic character; his cruel actions are explained from his perspective. The reader sees him as a human being who takes pity on the children, and in the end, is not a perpetrator of evil, but just one player in an evil world. The novel in general is sympathetic toward its characters; people do bad things because they have been treated badly, not because they are evil at heart. The teachers at Francie's first school were cruel, but only because they were lonely and had grown up in poor families; poor kids are cruel to each other because no on has taught them otherwise; the tree man only throws the tree because he is worried about feeding his own kids.
Likewise, Katie's thoughts allow us to sympathize with her, even in her hard detachment. For instance, she asks God for forgiveness that she sees Johnny as "worthless." She worries about her children growing up in a mean world. These feelings cannot be communicated when she is dismissing Francie's imaginative ideas, or scolding Johnny for his irresponsibility. If not for the omniscient point-of-view, the reader would not understand the emotions that lie beneath Katie's hard personality.
The story of the second lie, like that of the first, demonstrates the difficult relationship between charity and pride. Katie never accepts charity, and Francie knows it. Still, pumpkin pies and beautiful dolls are wonderful things to pass up, and Francie cannot stand it when they are about to go to waste. In both cases, Francie tells a lie to gain a small material good. She herself thinks back to the circumstances surrounding the first lie, when she remembers her teacher telling her to tell the truth and write down a more appealing fiction. The lure of the beautiful doll convinces her that simply writing about it would not do. Even as a young girl, Francie recognizes the self-righteousness of the charity event, as she wonders why they can't just give something away, but must "[talk] about it."
As Francie grows up, she comes to realize the ugly side of poverty, and becomes more of a realist. Her thoughts about the theater show that she is thinking like her mother; she thinks the heroine should marry the villain to "solve the rent problem" for instance, and she knows that if the heroine lost her job, she would simply find other low-wage work.
Chapter 29 demonstrates that Johnny's good intentions never seem to pan out. In his goodhearted way, he pities Little Tilly whose brother beat her out for time at the mother's breast. The details of the fishing trip show Johnny not only as incapable, but also as clownish, falling into the water in his tuxedo and buying rotten fish. Although he makes his children laugh, laughter and suffering are two sides of the same coin. When they return home, we learn that washing the tuxedo will cost the family a whole dollar, and even then it won't be fixed.
Johnny's songs about the sea are representative of his character. He lives his life concocting dreams, just as the songs tell romantic images of the sea. The sea turns out to be terrible, just as his dreams will never materialize.