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Francie is born a weak and sickly baby. When Katie Nolan's milk dries up when Francie is three months old, and the same conniving midwife tells Katie a woman has cast a spell on her. Sissy alerts Katie to the truth—that Katie is pregnant again. This second pregnancy makes Johnny all the more worried, and ultimately, is the beginning of a long downward spiral for him. The midwife brings an abortive, but Katie refuses it. Loyal to both of her children, Katie refuses the neighbors' comments on Francie's sickliness, and instead compares Francie to the Tree of Heaven, which keeps struggling to live.
When Neeley is born, Katie realizes that she loves him more than she does Francie. She also becomes harder, and so does Francie, when she feels the change in her mother. The narrator explains that both Johnny and Katie were doomed from the beginning since they were poor, and had two young children. She says that the difference between them is that Johnny accepts his doom, and Katie does not.
Johnny gets drunk for three days on his twenty-first birthday. Katie locks him in the bedroom, but finally his cries distress her so much that she calls Sissy, who has a remedy for Johnny. Sissy goes into the bedroom alone with Johnny and allows him sips of whiskey while holding him like a mother would, all night. The narrator remarks that Sissy's two great failings are that she is a great lover and a great mother. That is, she will give as much as she can to anyone, without taking anything for herself. When Sissy returns to Katie after her night with Johnny, she makes it clear that she and Johnny are not lovers, and tells Katie not to nag him. She also explains to Katie that "everybody's something" and that Johnny's drinking is the weakness in him Katie will have to overlook. Katie thinks to herself that Sissy is good to everyone she meets, even though people think her promiscuous habits bad.
Katie is too ashamed to live in the same neighborhood after Johnny's drinking binge. By this time, she is certain she cannot depend on Johnny to support the family. She finds a house where they can live rent-free if she keeps the building clean. The family moves, and the narrator lists the few family belongings that are packed on the ice man's wagon, and taken to their new home. Katie takes a dollar from the tin-can bank to pay the ice man, and nails it down again in her new closet. Mary Rommely (Katie's mother) comes to sprinkle holy water as a blessing in the new house, and Katie and Mary along with the babies, fall into a laughing fit when Francie spills it all over herself. The new house is also in Brooklyn, on Lorimer Street.
These three chapters demonstrate the struggles Katie and Johnny face in their first few years of marriage, and the ways in which the two respond to these struggles. By the time Neeley is born, Katie stops depending on Johnny to earn any money at all. The narrator reaffirms over and over again how different the husband and wife are from each other: Katie's survivor instinct makes her a "fighter," while Johnny's "hankering for immortality" makes him a "useless dreamer." Francie's character comes across as a hybrid of the two. In Chapter 10, Neeley's birth is the event that triggers character development. Katie is no longer tender, but hard in her struggle. Johnny, on the other hand, avoids the hard realities of their life, and becomes even more incapable of supporting his family. In addition to not having a regular job, he doesn't even work as a singing waiter as often as he used to.
Over the course of the novel, Johnny remains a static character, not changing in any major way. The narrator foreshadows his early death; like his brothers, he will die before age 35. Katie and Sissy's conversation in Chapter 11 indicates again that Johnny is unchanging. Sissy tells Katie that she must accept that Johnny will always be a drinker. Although Katie dreads Johnny's drinking, she never expects that he will be anything other than what he is now. While Neeley's birth seems to be a catalyst for Johnny's habit, it merely makes more obvious a weakness that was always a part of him. In fact, it seems to make both Katie and Johnny more themselves.
Many details in these chapters foreground the family's Catholicism, and reflect their worldview in general. When Katie finds out she is pregnant, the midwife accuses her of being worried about what the priest would say if she aborted the baby. Katie contemplates whether or not Sissy's soul will wander through Purgatory forever when she dies, or if God will take into consideration that she is good to every person she meets. Mary Rommely comes to bless the new house with holy water, explaining that it could have been inhabited by Protestants.
These chapters also continue to develop the theme of persevering amidst hardship. The author uses an interesting technique in Chapter 12, when she lists all of the belongings the Nolans are taking to their new home. This list could have easily been summarized, by mentioning furniture, books, cooking utensils, etc. Instead, the author lists every single item specifically to reaffirm how very poor the Nolans are. If one can list all of a family's belongings in a short paragraph, then the reader knows just how sparse their daily life is.
Hardworking characters such as Mary Rommely and Katie Nolan are not necessarily rewarded in the way the reader may think they deserve to be. In fact, all of life seems to be a game of moving one step forward and two steps back. In previous chapters, Mary Rommely explains to Katie how she worked for years to save $50 to buy her own land, only to be cheated out of it. She saves again only to have her husband take it away. This idea repeats itself on a smaller scale in Chapter 12 when the Nolans move houses. Katie has worked so hard to save $3.80 in her tin-can bank and then must pay the ice man $1 of it when the Nolans move. She wouldn't have had to spend this money if Johnny hadn't necessitated a move after humiliating his family in their old neighborhood.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!