A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Novel Summary: Book 3, Chapters 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

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Summary
Chapter Fifteen begins by relating how, at this new apartment, there are four rooms and a tree is growing in the yard. Francie has not started school yet and watches the children playing at recess. One day a girl comes out alone to clap two board erasers together to clean them. Francie is fascinated and the girl comes up to the fence as though to show her the erasers. When Francie moves to touch one, the girl spits in her face: ‘It was the first of many disillusionments that were to come as her capacity to feel things grew.’

At the end of this chapter there is a shift to describe the new home in further detail. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen and a parlor. There is a piano in the parlor, which has been left by the previous tenants.

Chapter Sixteen stresses the importance of neighborhood stores in a child’s life and describes several of them in great detail. Shops such as the pawnbroker’s, the cigar shop and the laundry are looked at from Francie’s point of view.

In Chapter Seventeen, Katie bargains to have piano lessons with Miss Tynmore (a neighbor) in exchange for an hour’s worth of cleaning. Francie and Neeley sit and watch the lesson as Katie hopes they will then be taught for free. After the lesson, Miss Tynmore says she will not charge extra for the children, but wants Katie to know she is not fooling her. At the end of each lesson, Katie gives her a little food and a drink, which is often more than she usually receives. When she has left, Katie teaches the children what she has learned and in that way all three of them learn the piano.

The readers learn in Chapter Eighteen that Francie is looking forward to starting school, but all children must have a vaccination first. She is seven when she starts as Katie makes her start a year later in order to begin at the same time as Neeley. This is because she wants them to protect each other.

On the day they are due to be vaccinated, Katie wants the children to go without her as she does not want to be upset. In the morning they are due to be injected, Francie and Neeley play at making mud pies and then forget to have a wash. The nurse and doctor castigate Francie for being so dirty. The doctor says that ‘they’ should be sterilized (meaning poor people) and the nurse, who grew up in a slum, agrees with him. The nurse is described as choosing to forget her background rather than keeping compassion and understanding for those left behind in the slums. The doctor’s ignorance of poor people is magnified when he shows his surprise at Francie’s articulacy.

Francie begins school in Chapter Nineteen and learns on the first day that she is too poor to ever be a teacher’s pet. The pets were children of prosperous storekeepers and did not have to share a table. Furthermore, the teacher spoke to these children in a gentle manner. On that first day, Francie learned of ‘the class system of a great Democracy’. The teacher is compared to the doctor in Chapter Eighteen and both are described as acting as though the poor children ‘had no right to live’. This hatred from the teacher was passed around, as these children then bullied each other.

The indictment of this school continues as we are told that 3,000 pupils attended when it was only built to accommodate 1,000. It is also described as ‘brutalizing’ and the poorer children were rarely allowed to go to the toilet in lessons.

Because Sissy is still not allowed into the Nolan home, she orchestrates a meeting with Francie outside the school to see how she is faring. Sissy discovers that Francie has inadvertently wet herself, as the teacher would not let her leave the room. Sissy visits the school and pretends to be Francie’s mother. She lies and says Francie has a kidney problem and also makes threats and implies bribery so that Francie will be treated with more kindness.

At home, Katie discovers through the insurance agent that Sissy has since had another baby that has died and so finally asks her to come and visit once more.

 

Analysis
As Francie reaches school age, the narrative begins to focus on her schooling. Chapter Nineteen introduces her first days and weeks and also offers a lambasting indictment of the educational system in slum districts in this period. The treatment of the children and the conditions they are supposed to study in are heavily criticized. Smith uses this part of the novel to step away from the gentler aspect of the novel in order to critique a system that treats children in such disparaging ways.

The comparison between the doctor (in Chapter Eighteen) and Francie’s teacher are compelling as both are depicted as treating the children who are mired in poverty as absolutely worthless. They allow and condone the social stigma of poverty to be attached to them and treat them as at least second-class citizens. Through this novel, Smith reveals her social conscience and uses this fiction to draw the readers in to sympathise with Francie’s voice, which is one that is usually overlooked in society.

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