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The Role of Mothers and Mother-Daughter Relationships in a Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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At the beginning of Book One, Francie is 11 and is living with her mother, Katie, father, Johnny, and younger brother, Neeley. Her father's family is from Ireland and her mother's is from Austria

The family lives in tenement housing -- small, inexpensive apartments that many immigrant families occupied in New York after immigrating through Ellis Island in the 19th and early 20th century. Francie's parents are important characters in the novel. In Book Two, there is a flashback to when Johnny and Katie met and fell in love. Johnny is fearful and overwhelmed when Katie becomes pregnant at an early age, laying the groundwork for his character later on. Katie is much more determined and practical. The family moves to several apartments before settling in the one that they are living in when the book begins.

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When Katie's son, Neeley, is born in Chapter 10 of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she admits to herself that she will always love her son more than her daughter. Katie thinks that she can keep this disparity of love hidden from Francie and that, if she treats the children the same, Francie will never know that she is loved less by her mother. Of course, Katie is unable to treat the children the same. In Chapter 3, Francie wonders why she likes her father best, even though her mother is a good woman. The reason Francie likes her father best is revealed throughout the novel, as Katie's love of Neeley influences how she treats Francie. For example, in Chapter 27, both children give Katie a Christmas gift. Francie makes an elaborate hat pin holder for her mother and Neeley gives each member of the family a candy cane that he bought. Francie is hurt that her mother makes a greater fuss over Neeley's gift than the one given by Francie. However, although Katie does not provide as much love to Francie, Johnny makes up for the lack of extra attention. Johnny's death in Chapter 36 leaves Francie without the one person who loved her above all others. In Chapter 42, Katie chooses to attend Neeley's graduation, while Aunt Sissy attends Francie's graduation. Francie's grades, except for her English grade, are much better than Neeley's grades, but Katie makes a fuss over Neeley's grades and chastises Francie for her English grade, never mentioning all the As that she earned. The cumulative effect of Katie's obvious favoritism is that Francie is desperately lonely and in real need of someone to love her, especially after Johnny's death. She finds the evenings especially lonely, until she begins to work nights and is able to enroll in summer college courses during the day. Francie's need for love results in her falling in love with Lee Rhynor, a young soldier, who tells her that he loves her, after knowing her less than two days. Because she wants so desperately to be loved, Francie responds to Lee by giving him her heart and a promise that she will wait for him to return from the war. Even after Lee betrays her, Francie continues to think about him. In Chapter 56, Francie sums up her great need for love in her assessment of Ben Blake, who has given her a ring. He loves her, but he does not need her, and more than anything, what Francie has learned throughout her life is that she has to have someone in her life who needs her to love him, just as she needs to be loved.

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These works focus on the traditional, nuclear family, in which the mother is the dominant parent. However, both daughter protagonists are seen as Daddy’s girls; they are attracted to the gaiety and freedom of their fathers but possess the strength of their mothers. These characters become strong women who desire a more liberal life than their mothers possess, because they admire the unrestricted lives their fathers (men) seem to have. However, there is no mistaking the relentless connection between Katie Rommely Nolan and Silla Boyce and their daughters despite the turmoil of their relationships. The mother-daughter relationships in these works reach successful outcomes, and that success is due, in no small part, to the mother’s ability to overcome oppressive circumstances under which she mothers her children. One of those oppressive circumstances is the stressful situation that marriage creates for the mothers. In these examples of mothering, marital stress involves the different philosophies of the spouses on issues such as alcoholism and philandering, which are also connected to socioeconomic issues, another example of oppressive circumstances. Both families have immigrant status: Katie Rommely Nolan's parents are Austrian, and her in-laws are Irish immigrants in Smith's novel, and Silla Boyce and her husband are Barbadian immigrants in Marshall's novel. The Nolan family deals with poverty, hunger, unemployment, education, and single parenting (due to the father’s death). The Marshall family deals with social climbing, land ownership, and single parenting (also due to the father’s death). The mother also deals with her own nurturance issues and mother-daughter conflicts that affect her ability to successfully mother. Each protagonist daughter longs for an emotional attachment that neither mother has the willingness and/or the time to fulfill, since she is so busy with her mothering tasks. As Collins writes, "For far too many [...] mothers, the demands of providing for children are so demanding that affection often must wait until the basic needs of physical survival are satisfied" (“The Meaning of Motherhood” 55). This lack of affection from their mothers fuels the daughters' preferences for their fathers, men who are inherently weak when compared to their mothers, but who apparently have more freedom than the mothers, due to the mothers’ roles as primary caretakers of the children. In both works, the mother-daughter relationships are unmistakably strong and combustible, but are finally composed of mutual respect and admiration

These mothers contend with the daughters’ choice of their fathers, in spite of the fact that both men, for the most part, are eventually regarded as disappointments by their families and by the community (Collins, Patricia Hill, 1990).

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As has been noted, Smith’s exploration of sex criticizes Americans’ misogynistic and hypocritical attitudes at the turn of the century

A microcosm of the United States at this time, Williamsburg is a community that wishes to preserve an illusion of innocence while contending with the unavoidable problems of modern urban life—sex crimes, the lack of birth control, and women who are divided between their traditional roles and their growing wishes for sexual freedom and expression.

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Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Harper, 1990.

“The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships.” In Bell-Scott. 42-60.

Duany, Jorge. “Neither Golden Exile nor Dirty Worm: Ethnic Identity in Recent Cuban-American Novels.” Cuban Studies 23 (1993): 167-186.

Fabre, Genevieve. “Genealogical Archaeology or the Quest for Legacy in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. 105-114.

Holloway, Karla F. C. “The Lyrics of Salvation.” In Holloway and Demetrakopoulos. 101-114.

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