A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Chapters 4–6

Chapter 4
Francie goes up to see what costume Flossie Gaddis is wearing to the dance that night. Flossie works as a turner in a glove factory, where she turns gloves right-side-out after they are sewn. She works to support her mother and brother Henny, who is nineteen and dying of consumption. Francie doesnt think he looks like hes dying, and Mrs.Gaddis instructs her to tell him he looks good. Henny is somewhat of a doomsayer about his health, and the three women eventually leave him alone to cry and cough.
Flossie works on three things each week: gloves, her costumes, and Frank. She has a closet filled with pieces of her dresses that she mixes and matches every week. Her costume design includes a long sleeve to cover her right arm, which was burned when she was a child when she fell into a wash boiler. Francie loves looking in her closet, as poor people love “huge quantities of things.” By the end of the chapter, however, she imagines a skull and bones coming out from the costumes, for Henny.
Chapter 5
Katie Nolan comes home from the movies with Aunt Sissy, who Francie loves dearly, since Sissy understands little girls so well. Sissy works in a rubber factory, which produces a few toys to hide their main product—condoms. Sissys husband works for a pulp magazine house, and Sissy brings them to Francie to read and then sell at half price.
Francie tells her mom about the old mans ugly feet, and her mom dismisses her fear, saying that everyone gets old, and they should just get used to it. Then the mother and daughter plan what they will make with their stale bread all week. Sunday supper will be a wonderful meal of fried meat. The narrator also describes “pickle days” on which days Francie buys a big Jewish pickle from a Hebrew man in a neighborhood store. She always asks for a “penny sheeny pickle” and although the word “sheeny” makes the old Jewish man angry, Francie doesnt know she is using an insulting word.
Chapter 6
Francie and Neeley go out to buy weekend meat, which includes a trip to Hasslers for a soup bone and Werners for chopped meat, since Katie Nolan doesnt trust the ground meat at Hasslers. Francies mother has given her detailed instructions about how to buy—she watch the butcher cut the round, to make sure its fresh, have him chop an onion with it, and get a piece of fat to fry it with. So many demands make the butcher at Werners quite angry. She also buys vegetables for the soup. After supper Francie meets up with her friend Maudie Donavan to go to confession. Maudie lives with two aunts who make shrouds for a living, and it frightens Francie when Maudie gives her some old scraps. Maudie has fewer sins than Francie. When they depart, Francie promises to call her.
Aunt Evy, Katie Nolans sister, and Uncle Flittman are there when Francie gets home. Francie likes Aunt Evy, whos very funny and looks like Mama. Uncle Flittman plays his guitar, and then begins to deprecate himself as a failure, telling a story about how his horse Drummer urinated on him. He also says that Evy doesnt love him anymore. Evy doesnt respond but says its time to go home.
Before bed, Neeley and Francie must abide by the house rule of reading one page of the Bible and one of Shakespeare. Since it is Saturday, Francie sleeps in the front room, and hears Johnny Nolan come home at two in the morning. He sings “Molly Malone” on his way up the stairs, and Katie opens the door before the end of the verse, which means that she won the little game they all play. (If he finishes the verse before his family opens the door, he wins.) Neeley and Francie wake up and the four eat together. Johnnie and Katie stay up all night talking, and Francie takes in their voices, as well as the neighborhood at night. She hears a girl bringing home a beau get caught by her father, and hears Mr. Tomony, the owner of the pawnshop come home. She dreams of one day frequenting the fancy places where he spends his time on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. Francie basks in the last little bit of Saturday, and hears her parents reminiscing about their first meeting before she falls asleep.
Flossie and Henry Gaddis represent both love for life and fear of death for Francie. Francie takes great joy in small material things, such as Flossies dresses. She is also mesmerized by the sheer number of dresses. Flossie is also one image of what Francie may herself become. Since she lives in the same building and her family is probably live in similar socioeconomic conditions. Francie, however, has already recognized Sissy as a classier role model. Throughout Francies childhood, she knows many women, all of whom serve as examples of someone Francie may become. The skull and bones coming out from the costumes represent death coming for Henny. Death resurfaces again in these chapters, when Francie meets up with Maudie Donavan, who lives with two women who sew shrouds. In both these cases, death is a small fear instead of an overpowering cosmic force. For an innocent girl, death still does not feel real. Like the small piece of fabric Maudie gives Francie, death is a scrap that is of no consequence. In fact, reviewing her afternoon, Francie talks about fearing the old mans feet, but does not think of death at all.
The neighborhood stores where the children are sent for food reaffirm again that the Nolans live in an underprivileged immigrant community. In this time and place, the ethnic groups remained segregated. Francie most likely does not know when she insults the pickle man because she has no Jewish friends. Maudie and Francie are friends partly because they accompany each other to confession—part of their Catholic heritage.
Chapters 5 and 6 introduce Francies aunts, two characters who will play important roles throughout the book. Sissy, especially, has a unique relationship with Francie because she is naturally maternal. The author mentions that Sissys factory makes rubber toys as a “blind” for its real product; the reader should understand that Sissy works at a condom factory. Sissys illicit relationships with men give her a bad reputation and her work place is also a taboo subject. Although the factory is mentioned a few times in the book, the word “condom” is never used.
Uncle Flittmans self-deprecation in Chapter 6 provides just a glimpse of the torments of the poor, American male. In middle age, he believes that his wife does not love him anymore, and that he is no good for anything. Although Johnny is more happy-go-lucky than Uncle Willie, they share some of the same feelings of inadequacy. Although the author has already alluded to Johnnys alcoholism, Chapter 6 presents a picture of a healthy and happy family. Indeed, in this novel, Johnnys habits do not make him a morose, angry, or violent character when it comes to his family. In fact, he loves his wife and children dearly, to the point where all four stay up late eating leftovers and talking about their evenings.