A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
This chapter begins with a flashback to another summer twelve years earlier in Brooklyn, when Francie's parents, Johnny Nolan and then Katie Rommely first meet. Katie works with her best friend, Hildy O'Dair in the Castle Braid factory, and Hildy dates a boy named Johnny Nolan. One night, Johnny finds a boy for Katie, so that the four of them can go out together. Katie didn't like him much, but is taken by Johnny when she sees Johnny dance. When he gives her a courtesy dance, she decides that looking at him and listening to him are worth slaving her entire life. This may have been a mistake, but she wants no one else. Kate and Johnny marry New Year's day, 1901, after knowing each other not even four months.
Thomas Rommely, Katie's hateful father, will never forgive Katie for marrying. As the Rommely's were from Austria, he only speaks German; the girls' mother refuses to let them speak anything but English at home, to avoid his cruelty. Mary Rommely, Katie's mother, is a saint, a devout Catholic who believes in all things supernatural. She can not read or write, and believes her husband when he tells her he is the devil. Her daughters and Francie all inherited her soft, soothing voice.
Sissy, Thomas and Mary's first child, did not go to school since Mary realized too late that education was free in America. A "highly sexed" girl, Sissy married very young to a fireman named Jim, whom Sissy always called John. When she delivered four dead babies, Sissy believed it was Jim's fault and eventually married another man (who she also calls John) without getting divorced. Sissy delivered four more dead babies before leaving the second John, going to work at the rubber factory, and having a succession of lovers. Her love for children grew stronger with every dead baby she delivered. Finally she married a third John who works at the magazine company.
Eliza, Mary and Thomas's second daughter, neither pretty nor fiery, joined a nunnery, taking the name Sister Ursula, and growing facial hair.
Evy, the third, married Willie Flittman young, and had three children. She tried hard to be refined, and wished her children to be musical like their father. She made her daughter quit studying the fiddle, when the teacher required her to take off her shoes and stockings at the lessons. Evy could mimic people very well, especially her husband.
Whereas the last chapter details the personal histories of the "strong" Rommely women, this one addresses the "weak" and "talented" Nolan men. Ruthie and Mickey Nolan came to the United States from Ireland, and had four boys—Andy, Georgie, Frankie, and Johnny, who are all well-dressed, singing waiters, who all die before they turn thirty-five. Only Johnny leaves children. Andy has consumption and never marries his fiancée, Francie Melaney, before dying on a fine pillow his brothers buy him as a luxury. The three remaining boys vow to take care of their mother, but six months later, Johnny marries Katie. The pillow is then given to Katie as a wedding present, and is used when anyone gets sick. Frankie dies in a freak drunken accident, and Georgie dies at twenty-eight.
Francie Nolan is a mix of Nolan and Rommely, but is also part just herself; she has traits that come from neither family that she acquires through her own observations and reading.
The chapter begins when Johnny and Katie are first married, living in Brooklyn and working as night janitors in a public school. They are very much in love and enjoy their time at night alone together. Then Katie gets pregnant and their blissful lives are tainted with worry.
The December night that Katie goes into labor, Johnny gets so worried and confused that he leaves to find comfort in his family. Falling asleep, he misses both the birth and his job. Francie is born with a caul, which supposedly indicates a child who will do great things. Johnny brings Katie two avocados, and begins to cry when he sees her, out of fear and angst. He does not tell her right away that he has been fired from his job for neglect. Katie feels terrible that he has to suffer so much.
They name Francie after Johnny's brother Andy's fiancée. Mary Rommely gives Katie all kinds of warm and good advice: Katie must read one page a day to her daughter from Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible. She must allow Francie to have imagination. Katie should start a money bank, where she will save a nickel a day so that one day she may own her own land. This is how Mary Rommely's children and grandchildren will live a better life than their parents—a dream that Mary believes is possible in the new world.
Sissy visits, bringing lots of good food. She starts the bank for Katie, buys a Shakespeare collection from the library, and steals a Protestant Bible from the hotel where she's sleeping with her current lover.
These chapters are a flashback from the summer of 1912 in Book I. The omniscient point of view in this novel allows the author to give the reader information about Francie that even Francie herself may not know. Although we have already met Francie, and know about her life as an eleven-year-old girl, these chapters fill in the history before her birth. While chapters seven and eight both concern Katie Rommely's and Johnny Nolan's families a generation before, chapter eight ends by describing Francie. The narrator explains how Francie has inherited characteristics from each side of the family. This conclusion to the family history suggests that it is told for the specific reason of explaining to the reader why Francie is the way she is.
By presenting the personalities from both sides of the family, the narrator foreshadows the roles that Johnny and Katie will play in Francie's life, and the difficulties they will confront. The Rommely women are made of "invisible steel" while the Nolan men are "weak" and "talented." When Katie Rommely vows that she wants to spend her life with Johnny, the narrator warns that this might have been a mistake. The reader is lead to believe that Johnny will not change over the course of the book, but will remain a romantic who relies completely on his wife to support his family. Likewise, the narrator mentions that Johnny marries Katie six months after he has promised to spend his life taking care of his mother.
The American dream motif arises in Chapter 8 when Mary Rommely gives Katie advice about having a daughter. Mary, a first generation American, thinks about her family in terms of bettering each generation. Her exclamation that her children know how to read and writes demonstrates how much faith she has that education will be her family's way out of poverty. She sees America as a place of promise, where one may detach oneself from serfdom forever by owning land. Most of Katie's decisions about her family's life come from this conversation with her mother. The American dream motif is closely related to the theme of hope amidst hardship. This theme presents itself more through Katie than Johnny. Katie receives the parenting advice, and Katie will be the one who has more resources to improve her children's lives.
The theme of gender difference also arises in these chapters. Mary Rommely has rather progressive thoughts on gender, in spite of—or perhaps because of—her husband's cruel behavior. She grieves when Katie gives birth because she knows "to be born a woman [means] a life of humble hardship." Chapter 7 also includes a scene that demonstrates the strength of women's camaraderie; Evy mimics her husband for Katie and Francie. They laugh together, "about a secret they shared concerning the weakness of a man." This scene shows a space that belongs only to women—the three laugh in the kitchen alone without men. Such a scene allows for women to develop their own thoughts and ideas, without competing with men for speaking time. Throughout this book, nearly every birth scene provides an opportunity for women to spend time with each other alone, doing things men can never know. The narrator suggests that the shared pain of childbirth facilitates female bonding.