The novel begins with an epigraph about the eponymous tree that grows in Brooklyn. We are told the tree, ‘would be considered beautiful except there are too many of it’.
Chapter One begins in the summer of 1912 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is a Saturday afternoon and Francie Nolan, who is aged 11 at this time and is the novel’s central protagonist, is sitting on her fire escape. She imagines she is living in a tree as it reaches around her through the fire escape. People call this the ‘Tree of Heaven’ and it proliferates ‘only in the tenement districts’.
Saturday is a ‘wonderful day’ for Francie and the readers are then given a lengthy description of how this day usually unfolds. It begins with a trip to the junkman. All week, she and her brother, Neeley, save rags, paper and metal (like other Brooklyn kids) and take it to Carney’s on Saturday. As their mother is the janitor of their building, they also empty the dumb waiters for collectible rubbish too. Neeley is a year younger than Francie, but he handles the little money they receive from Carney and divides it carefully.
They put half the money into the ‘tin-can bank’ (which is a home made saving device) and then go to a penny candy store, which is called Cheap Charlie’s. We are then told that it is not cheap and the man who serves them is not called Charlie. Here, children are enticed into buying their candy with the hope of winning a prize and Francie promises herself that one day she will buy all the ‘picks’ as she has never heard of anybody winning a good prize (such as roller skates). After this, Francie heads towards Broadway and goes into a nickel and dime store. She buys five cents worth of pink and white peppermint wafers.
Back at home, her mother, Katie, has finished work for the weekend. She is aged 29 and keeps three tenement houses clean. She earns the main living for the family. Her husband (and father of Francie and Neeley) is called Johnny Nolan and is described as ‘a handsome, lovable fellow, far superior to any man on the block. But he was a drunk. That’s what they said and it was true’. Johnny does not work very often. He is a freelance singing-waiter and spends his Saturday mornings at the Union headquarters waiting for work. Katie’s background is revealed as it is explained that two of her sisters, Evy and Sissy, come to the apartment often.
After lunch, Francie goes to buy the stale (cheaper) bread and pie. Because it is so cheap, the buyer has to supply his or her own wrapping. The proud ones, such as Francie, did this. Whilst waiting for the stale food, Francie sits near an old man and plays her ‘favorite game’ where she imagines the lives of other people. She then begins to panic as she recognizes that this life of poverty and grim old age ‘could happen to her’, and she could have ‘toothless gums and feet that disgusted people’.
This first chapter ends with Francie initially following her brother and his friends as they go to play baseball. After watching them for a short period of time, she leaves to visit the library.
This first chapter sets the scene for the rest of the novel as the readers are given a brief introduction into Francie’s life of poverty. It is also clear that Francie is proud and reluctant to remain in this cycle of struggle. This is made explicit when she waits for the stale bread and suddenly panics that she too could be sitting there in the future with ‘obscene feet’.
Although it is correct that the novel criticizes the effects of poverty, it is evident in this first chapter alone that this harsh existence is also given a sentimental flavor with the use of Francie’s perspective. The harsh facts of existing on starvation-level money are balanced by the knowledge that Francie loves Saturdays and is able to imagine that she is living in tree whilst sitting on her fire escape.