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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the heart-warming and nostalgic story of a sensitive and intelligent girl, Francie Nolan. As in most of Smith's literature, the novel concentrates on the theme of social progress - of people rising above the station in life to which they were born. As a child, Francie lives in poverty, but she faces her problems with humor and pride. Thanks to her mother's influence, Francie is also determined to get a good education so that she can leave the poverty behind. She succeeds through her own imagination and inner strength. The novel, which takes place in the first two decades of the twentieth century, gives a realistic picture of life in the slums of the United States.
The novel has as a background the First World War. Prior to 1917, there is much talk about the United States entering into the conflict that already rages in Europe. Then on April 6, 1917, Francie goes to work and reads that the U.S. has finally declared war. She immediately feels the effects of the war. Soon, there are many young men in uniform seen throughout Brooklyn. The names of streets and products change in support of the war effort. Most importantly, the firm in which Francie works is sold, and she must find a new job.
Although the Nolan family is poor, they believe in education and keeping up with current events. As a result, Francie, who studies the newspaper at her job, always brings it home for Katie and Neeley to read.