I saw this on the library shelf and realized that it was a classic that I had never read and didn't really know anything about; so, I picked it up. The tree is a metaphor for the main character, Francie. Despite the fact that nothing grows (or could grow) in the yard, the tree survives (even after being cut down), as does Francie.
I found the story compelling and the female characters individual and complex. Francie and the rest of the Rommelly women are strong and determined. Katie never falters: "When she used her beautifully shaped but worn looking hands, she used them with surety...when she spoke, she spoke truly with the plain right words. And her thoughts walked in a clear uncompromising line." Sissy is not a black and white character, she is both good and bad and keeps striving for herself until she gets her baby. Francie develops into a quite intelligent and hardworking young woman; she excels at her jobs and would earn her way through college (even if McShane hadn't entered the picture and semi-magically taken care of it). In fact, the one time that Francie sees Katie fumble is after they fight about Francie returning to high school or remaining in the work world the fall that she is 14. Francie loses the argument, but the impression is that she has seen Katie's weakness and gives in to her mother out of pity.
The male characters, though, are almost uniformly weak. Johnny is handsome and fun, but a useless drunk; Uncle Willie is incompetent and ultimately runs off; Grandpa Rommelly is the devil himself.
Smith has great use of language and is direct in her class commentary. She points out the way that Tammany hall bought the poor vote, she discusses the immigrants' dreams of advancement (and Mary Rommelly's understanding of the necessity of education). One of my favorites was the point she makes about the lack of class consciousness or united-ness (despite their parent's love of unions) among the school children: "Francie, huddled with other children of her kind, learned more that first day than she realized. She learned of the class system of a great Democracy....It would seem as if all the unwanted children would stick together and be one against the things that were against them. But not so. They hated each other as much as the teacher hated them."
And remembering what it was like to be a poor, lonely girl myself I loved Francie's reliance on books to take her away from her surroundings and provide her with friends: "From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood."
Smith also comments on the lack of companionship among women (similar to the children); women in this world do not have much external power (control over money or voting), but the Rommelly women (at least the sisters if not the mother) wield quite a bit of power over their men. However, none of these women get along with other women. The other women in the neighborhood are oftentimes described as just catty and gossipy. Several times Smith notes that "It was the only thing the women held in common--the sure knowledge of the pain of giving birth." The one area in which women universally unite and are superior over men; bringing life into the world.
Overall very well done and compelling as a coming-of-age character novel.