Chapter 1: The first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in 1912. The setting is an area of Brooklyn called Williamsburg. The area is one of poverty, filled with recent immigrant families who are impoverished. There is a tree growing in the area that survives no matter how poor the soil or water. The tree is called the Tree of Heaven by some of the residents, since the tree grows only in the neighborhoods where the poorest people live.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, who is eleven years old when the story begins. It is a Saturday, and Francie and her younger brother, Neeley, spend part of the morning collecting metal scraps to sell to Carney, the junk man. The children keep only half the money they earn; the other half will be placed in the tin can bank back home. As Francie walks home, she admires the neighborhood where she lives and notices the pregnant Jewish women, whom Francie thinks must have so many babies because they hope that one will be the messiah. In contrast to the Jewish women, Francie thinks that Irish women look ashamed to be pregnant.
Francie's mother, Katie, works as a janitor cleaning three buildings. The extra money that the children earned and saved is given to Katie to be placed in the tin can. Katie sends Francie to buy stale bread at the store. After she takes the bread home, Francie wants to tag along with Neeley and some other boys, but they do not want her company. She watches as they harass a couple of other boys, including a Jewish boy, and then she walks to the library.
Chapter 2: Francie reads a book a day and is trying to read every book in the library. On Saturdays, Francie checks out two books and always asks the librarian to recommend the second book. The librarian hates children, always recommends the same two books, and never looks at Francie.
When she arrives back home with her books, Francie sits on the fire escape and reads as she watches some of her neighbors. Francie watches Flossie Gaddis, who lives in Francie's building, flirt with Frank, the handsome young man who drives the dentist's wagon. She invites him out to a dance for Saturday evening, but he is not interested. He is never interested. Francie has watched this same exchange between Frank and Flossie many times and comments that Flossie is "starved about men," while her Aunt Sissy is "healthily hungry about men."
Chapter 3: Francie's father finally appears, and readers learn that he is both charming and irresponsible. Francie loves her father, in spite of his failings. As she irons an apron for him to wear that night to work, she thinks about a conversation she overheard one day when she visited the Union Headquarters. She heard two men criticize her father for spending his tips on getting drunk, instead of supporting his family. Francie, though, thinks that her father is loved by almost everyone, including the family he fails to support.
These first few paragraphs serve as an introduction to the Nolan family and to the neighborhood in which they live. The neighborhood is an important part of the novel. The people and shops located there serve as the backdrop for Francie's life. Each shop and the people who inhabit the shops are described, from their physical description to how each of the people behaves. Special attention is paid to the tree that is featured in the title of the book. The tree's actual species is not provided. Instead it is described as a Tree of Heaven because it grows only where the poor live. In fact, people know that if the tree begins to grow in a nice neighborhood, the neighborhood is destined for poverty.
The book begins with a typical Saturday for the eleven-year-old girl. Her family and a few of her neighbors are briefly introduced. These descriptions are filtered through her understanding of each of these people, so readers see the neighborhood as Francie sees it. She also notes the differences in religious beliefs. Francie is Catholic, but there are many Jewish people living in the neighborhood, as well. There is a natural conflict between the two groups. Francie's mother tells her that Jesus was a Jew, but the neighborhood boys claim that the Jews killed Jesus, which serves as justification for harassing a Jewish boy that they see. Francie also remarks on the differences between pregnant Jewish women and pregnant Irish women, and she has observed that the Christians line up to buy Jewish bread.
Francie's love of books is also an important part of the introductory chapters. She loves reading and thinks that the neighborhood's old library, which is poorly maintained, is beautiful. She notices a small bowl of flowers in the library and thinks they're beautiful as well. Francie appreciates the world in which she lives and does not see the poverty or disrepair that envelops her neighborhood.
Readers are also introduced to Johnny Nolan in these opening chapters. His background is more fully developed in Book 2, but even in this short vignette, it becomes clear that he is not the ideal father that Francie thinks him to be. His is a charming man, who can still attract the ladies, especially when outfitted in his waiter's tuxedo. It is at home, though, where Johnny's failings are most obvious. His children are thin and hungry, and his wife scrubs the floors of three buildings to support the family, so that Johnny can continue to project that charming, man-about-town demeanor. When Johnny puts on his tuxedo shirt, he puts on a set of pearl studs that Katie gave to him as a wedding gift. No matter how destitute the family, no matter how hungry they are, the studs are never pawned. The pearl studs represent Katie's hopes that Johnny will always be able to provide for his family's future. Readers should also understand that a man who is loved so very deeply by his children and wife, in spite of his many faults, cannot be all bad.