A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The New Year arrives, and Francie is convinced that 1917 will bring more important events than any other year. At midnight, the Germans in the neighborhood drown out Auld Lang Syne with a German song. Then, the Irish parody the Germans. In the Nolan house, Katie watches nervously as she hands Neeley and Francie a drink. Worried that they will inherit Johnny's weakness, she has neither encouraged drinking nor preached against it (in fear of their individualist rebellion). Neeley and Francie go out to the roof; Neeley refuses drunkenness because he hates vomiting, and Francie finds she gets drunk on life without drinking. Neeley starts to sing, and reminds Francie of her papa. Francie thinks that Brooklyn is like a magic city.
After Christmas, the normal routine resumes. Neeley plays the piano in the ice cream shop some nights, and Francie misses having a sweetheart or friend. One day, Katie reads that Sissy's first husband—the fireman—has died; Sissy's picture is printed in the paper, since she is still his legal wife. At Sissy's house, her John is going crazy, and ultimately sticks up for himself. He insists that the family call him his real name, Steve, and then orders that Sissy, being widowed from her first husband, get a divorce from her second husband and marry Steve again. As it turns out, the second husband already got a legal divorce. Sissy and Steve marry in the church—the only kind of wedding that Sissy will take seriously, and Steve finally feels secure and happy. Sissy eventually told Steve about the adopted baby. Steve himself had tipped Sissy on to Lucia—the woman from whom Sissy adopted her baby. Lucia had supposedly gotten into trouble with a married man. Sissy marvels that coincidentally the baby looks much like Steve. Also, Sissy is pregnant again.
On April 6, 1917, America enters World War I. In her office, Francie anticipates this moment as a memory. Along with the front page of the newspaper, she gathers a poem, a lock of hair, and some fingerprints together in an envelope as a time capsule. One day, one of Francie's company's biggest clients is found out to be a German spy. The office gets smaller before closing altogether. Francie finds a new job as a teletyper, working nights. Katie begins to worry about money, as Francie took a pay cut and the war has escalated prices. Francie tells her mother she will never go to high school; she knows too much about the world from reading the papers every day and she would have nothing to learn and nothing in common with the other students. Instead, she signs up for three summer school courses, with Katie's permission to take money out of her college savings. She feels sick, realizing how little education her family has had—and now she is in college.
Unlike Johnny, Sissy is a dynamic character in the novel—she changes from the beginning to end. As a young woman, she has many lovers and does not take her marriages seriously because they were not in the church. In Chapter 38, Francie notices that Sissy is stouter and no longer wears perfume—she no longer wishes to attract men. Even when Sissy accompanied Francie to her graduation, Francie noticed that she paid no attention to the man in uniform who the passed on the way. Now, Sissy's marriage in the church signals a complete change. Her husband feels assured she will never walk out on him, and the narrator says she is more in love than ever. In addition, she consents to calling him by name, a sign that she regards him individually, instead of one of many lovers, or "Johns." Sissy's feelings of regret about her past lovers also suggest a change. Now, lovers are a mere memory and not a temptation. Sissy's great gifts as a lover and mother are channeled in a more secure way.
Francie's and Neeley's dislike for alcohol shows that they are growing into strong young adults. This event signals that they will never have the same weakness as their father. Both seem to have inherited their father's romanticism; they can recreate it without drinking. New Year's in Brooklyn reaffirms the presence of strong ethnic communities, especially as the Germans and Irish get into a who-can-sing-louder contest. However, the way the German song drowns out Auld Lang Syne foreshadows America's entrance into the world war.
Francie's reaction to the war reassures us that she has not lost her poetic sensibilities. Although Francie works in mundane jobs, she remains eager to learn, observant, and a romantic. At the start of the new year, she recounts a story to her brother about seeing a tulip for the first time, and feeling so dizzy she had to sit down. She feels certain that she gets drunk on life, without liquor. When war breaks out, Francie responds as only a writer can; she thinks of herself in the position of storytelling. She immediately anticipates how the story will be told when she is old. Trying to "hold onto [the instant] as a living thing" is exactly what a writer does when he or she records a story on paper. Francie has collected numerous poems and rhymes from the newspapers she reads. Now, the way she notices the tiny details of her surroundings—the whorlings of the lining of her purse, the roughness of her stockings—suggest that she is the kind of person who can record places, moments, and stories. The author of the poem she slips in the time capsule is Walt Whitman, a poet who not only wrote about living in the moment, but also sought to record the American experience. Perhaps Francie will do the same.
Francie's jobs have given her a kind of education that she could never have received in school. Katie's eagerness to send her to college reaffirms her concern for her daughter's education. Although Katie has let Neeley go back to high school, she never sees this decision as replacing Francie's opportunity.