Francie Nolan Lends a Heart

Francie Nolan Lends a Heart

Written by Susan Severson

This summer, I had the profound experience of a book lending strength to my overtired and over-busy heart. Before I came to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (again), I felt exhausted and a bit lifeless. There are long seasons of emotional and physical exhaustion in my life, exacerbated by external factors beyond my control. Many of these external factors were good things! Guests, celebrations, dinners, new curriculums to explore, and a (surprise) pregnancy. Others are not so great: losing a house in a bidding war, literally every appliance in our home deciding to poop out on us, and a myriad of random illnesses picked up by my talented children.

Whether good or bad, I felt depleted. I found myself dully completing my daily tasks, asking Christ to lend me the heart of a child, to feel human again! I thought I needed to start taking the axe to my schedule and become more organized, but I turned to Betty Smith’s gem of a novel at every spare minute instead. By the end of the book, I found that the characters therein had slowly been pouring some vitality back into my butter-over-too-much-bread fatigue. 

I couldn’t have asked for a more human family than the Nolans. Johnny, a dreamer and an artist, suffered acutely from alcoholism. I ached for him as his good intentions again and again remained only intentions. He couldn’t reconcile his great need for beauty with his addiction and circumstances. His wife, Katie, is the rigid backbone of the family but is made so only by necessity. She was a very moving character for me as a mother. She would often put on a brave face and make a game of a dire situation, bottling in her own needs and emotions to keep her children safe. And Francie, oh Francie. She was the answer to the prayer that I had been asking for. I delighted in her childish wonder in front of the world. Where most would see a bleak and sad existence, Francie saw opportunity and beauty.

From a very young age, Francie was aware of her hard reality. She knew that her mother favored her brother, her family was poor, and others believed them to be dirty and ignorant. She understood that her father was seen as a useless drunk. And yet, Francie never folded, and she certainly never accepted the role of victim. Her unique ability to see reality, remain resilient, and gain knowledge inspired me.

While many episodes were touching, I loved the scene where she stood upright and rigid with her little brother Neeley on a chilly Christmas Eve, waiting for the burly Christmas tree vendor to thrust a large pine at them. They could take it home for free if they didn’t buckle under the tree’s weight. I could picture her little, underfed body, shivering in the cold, eyes bright, and her breath unfurling into the freezing air. Her sweet and youthful heart would not be rid of hope, and as the boughs of the great tree slammed into her and her brother, the force shook them, but they did not fall. Her love for her family and her hope and need for beauty kept her standing.

C.S. Lewis says: 

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” 

I was keenly aware of this when I read the last page of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when Francie, now a young woman, says goodbye to her childhood. Betty Smith finishes the book in such a beautifully poignant manner. With my eyes stinging and heart aching, I switched off the light and nestled into my pillows, clutching my chest, holding gratefully onto a heart awakened.

Susan Severson

Susan Severson is a wannabe saint, a homeschool slogger, a sometimes-but-wants-to-be-all-the-time writer, and a mother to four little rapscallions. Prayers are welcome. She resides in Crosby, MN. 

About Well-Read Mom

In Well-Read Mom, women read more and read well. Our hope is to deepen the awareness of meaning hidden in each woman’s daily life, elevate the cultural conversation, and revitalize reading literature from books. If you would like to have us help you select worthy reading material, we invite you to join and read along with us. We are better together! For information on how to start or join a Well-Read Mom group visit our website

Well-Read Mom -- Motherhood

Well-Read Mom

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.