A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Nolan's new apartment is made up of four railroad rooms—a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a front room. The house is a humble place, but Francie finds things to like about it. The kitchen looks out over a small, concrete yard where the Tree of Heaven grows. The bathtub in the new house is really just two washtubs, with a very uncomfortable bottom. The dingy airshaft outside of the bedrooms, which lets in only dank air, snow, and rain, reminds Francie of what Purgatory must be like. Francie loves the front room, which, once decorated, becomes a happy place. She loves the piano that the past renter couldn't afford to move out. Johnny can play just a few chords, and sings along with them. His playing touches Francie to the point of tears. Also in the front room was the conch shell that Francie and Neeley named "Tootsy." When Francie first saw the ocean, the only remarkable thing about it was that it sounded like the conch shell.
On the other side of the yard is the school, and one day Francie sees a girl clapping erasers together. Showing off, she comes closer to Francie to let her touch them, and then spits in Francie's face. Francie begins to dislike blackboard erasers, which before seemed like enchanting objects.
The narrator explains that neighborhood stores are an important part of city children's lives, and then details all the stores around the new apartment in Williamsburg. Francie's favorite is the pawnshop, because she loves the three golden balls that hang above it. There is a bakery and Gollender's Paint Shop. The most interesting store is an old-fashioned place owned by a cigar maker who refuses technology, and sometimes makes his cigars by candlelight. Another store sells only tea, coffee, and spices. It has a large grinder, but the Nolans grind their coffee at home. Francie especially loves the pair of scales in the tea man's shop. A Chinaman owns the store where Johnny gets his shirts cleaned. Francie thinks his self-heating iron a mystery of the Chinese race, and wishes she could be a Chinaman.
Katie agrees to trade Miss Lizzie Tynmore, a neighbor in their building, an hour of housecleaning for an hour of piano lessons. Katie instructs her children to listen quietly during the lesson, although Katie is officially the student. Francie is fascinated both by Miss Tynmore's hat, which has a red bird pierced by hat pins, and the metronome. At the end of the lesson, Miss Tynmore lets Katie know that she is teaching three for the price of one, but still allows it.
When Miss Tynmore does not leave, Katie finds out she expects tea. With no tea to offer, Katie goes to fix her coffee and a sweet roll. The narrator explains that Miss Tynmore needs the tea women serve her after lessons, since she does not have much money for food herself. In the meantime, Miss Tynmore asks Francie what she thinks about when she is sitting on the curb for hours. Francie answers that she tells herself stories, and Miss Tynmore commands that she will be a writer one day.
Johnny tries to one-up Katie by trading voice lessons for Francie from the other Tynmore sister in exchange for repairing a broken sash cord. He cannot fix it, and ends up breaking their window. Katie has to work extra hours for the sisters to make up for it.
The incident with the blackboard erasers in the schoolyard is a moment in which Francie begins to lose her innocence. Before she meets up with this unkind girl, Francie adores blackboard erasers. In the previous chapter, Francie has told her father that Katie will keep her out of school an extra year so that she may enter with Neeley, and they can protect each other from the other kids. Francie's extreme excitement over the erasers mirrors her extreme excitement about starting school. Francie's disappointment when the girl with the erasers spits in her face foreshadows how she may feel at school.
This novel often describes everyday objects in a new light. The piano is one such object. Like the huge quantity of dresses in Flossie Gladdis's closet, the piano is impressive mostly because of its size. The narrator explains the laborious process of getting it into an apartment room. Francie tries to wrap her arms around it. While an old stand-up piano may not be inherently impressive, we can appreciate the way size and quantity impress a little girl whose life is filled with scarcity. In fact, its size is nothing less than a "miracle," and the narrator goes on to devote an entire other chapter to the first piano lesson.
The piano is one example of how the set and scenery of the novel, are more than a backdrop for the story. They are the medium through which the story is told. That is, the characters' hopes, disappointments, and dreams are often symbolized by material objects in their geographical space. The tree is a symbol of hope; in Chapter 15 at least, the erasers symbolize shame and disappointment. Katie's dream of owning her own land is symbolized by the tin-can bank. Material things are sentimentalized because they are scarce. The author has a way of representing beauty more often in material objects, than in grandiose abstractions. In this book, the conch shell which has a lovely roar inside it, is much more remarkable than the sea. This idea is especially true through a child's eyes. The details of the neighborhood in Chapter 16 once again present a barrage of tiny treasures that make each individual place magical to Francie as a little girl.
The Chinaman contributes to the themes of the story since he represents other immigrant groups living in Brooklyn. Even though these groups may live side by side, their lives do not mix in any way, except in the transactions of goods and money. Francie exoticizes the Chinaman, thinking up stories about him akin to urban legends. Even Katie says he wears his hair the way he does so that they will let him back into China.
The Tynmore sisters remind us of the community of poor people in Williamsburg. Most of this novel is told through the events and lives of one family—the Nolans. In Chapter 17, the author breaks from this structure for a short time, to let the reader into the life of the Tynmore sisters. They actually complicate the story, providing a view of the whole micro-economy among the poor community. Not only must a poor family make rent and buy food, but they do so by depending on other poor families, hence Lizzie Tynmore's consternation when Katie doesn't serve her tea. It is important to note that Katie's responds with eager generosity; never stingy, she offers more than was asked, despite her meager rations.