Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published in 1943. By 1945 it had already been adapted into a very successful movie. Then, by 1952, the story was transformed into a hit musical on Broadway. What was the reason for such popularity and recognition? A likely answer is the story’s themes about the immigrant experience in American; more specifically, the immigrant experience in New York. During the heyday of the book's popularity, millions of readers living in the boroughs of New York alone could immediately relate to its narrative.
Semiautobiographical in nature and episodic in style, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an example of the coming-of-age genre. The reader first meets Francie Nolan as an 11-year-old girl in the Brooklyn of 1912 and says goodbye to her as a 17-year-old about setting off to attend college in Michigan. Along the way, a portrait of immigrant live in the early decades of the 20th century illustrates the reality of abject poverty and the necessary of investing profoundly in hope. The titular tree becomes the central symbol of this hope, as its struggle to rise through the concrete jungle of the city to bask in the life-giving warmth of a sun not encumbered by glass and steel serves a metaphor for the struggle of many immigrants in New York to succeed despite the overwhelming odds obstructing them on a daily basis.
So deeply did Smith’s novel penetrate into the consciousness of mid-century America that familiarity with its title far exceeded any possible readership. That title became so instantly identifiable that it became one of the most parodied and referenced of its time. A 1947 Bugs Bunny cartoon titled “A Hare Grows in Manhattan” even has the shrewd rabbit using a copy of Smith’s novel to outwit a pack of dogs who have been hounding him. From a 1950s I Love Lucy episode about play titled “A Tree Grows in Havana” to a 1990s Daria episode titled “A Tree Grows in Lawndale,” writers have continually found inspiration for humor in the title of Betty Smith’s novel, if not necessarily in the plot.