Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (P.S.)Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Pages: 493
Published: HarperPerennial 2005
Read For: Monday Night Book Club
Chosen By: Me (June 2010)
My Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of the few books that I actually recall reading in high school.  It is also one of the few books that I remember enjoying (which is most likely directly linked to the fact that I remember it.)  It was written by Betty Smith and originally published in 1943.  Much more than a coming of age story, it also portrays a well remembered childhood at a transitional point in American history: the years before the Great War when wagons gave way to automobiles, illiteracy to college graduates.

Francie Nolan is eleven at the beginning of the book, and she is so much more than just a character.  Francie Nolan is a person so real that at times I felt as if I were her.  The way Francie would process information and experiences, the way she would describe her heart breaking or her life changing were put into words so beautifully that they resonated deeply within me.  I have read many books with two dimensional characters--flatter than a pancake with no possibility of convincing you they are real people.  I have read many more books with three dimensional characters--you may not know them inside out but they are fleshed out enough to be believable.  But this book, for me, is so much more than that.  It was as if, instead of merely experiencing life with Francie, I was remembering--with Francie--things that I myself had experienced: the fear, confusion, pain.

Many themes ran throughout the book, including determination and perseverance, family legacy and social class, love and the struggle to define good and bad.  Like the people of Brooklyn, "The tree whose leaf umbrellas had curled around," found a way to grow and flourish despite the surroundings.  
"Some people called it the Tree of Heaven.  No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky.  It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement.  It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts."
The immigrant's struggle with providing more for the next generation in order to overcome social class restrictions is beautifully put when Francie's grandmother, Mary Rommely, visits her daughter, Katie Nolan, after the birth of little Francie.
"She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms.  'This child was born of parents who can read and write,' she said simply. 'To me, this is a great wonder.'"
Francie's experiences with the library, with school, with trying to earn money and buy food, demonstrate what an uphill climb a childhood in Brooklyn was.  Her relationships (and ponderings about her relationships) with her parents, aunts, and others around her show how grey the lines are between right and wrong, good and bad.  The incredible resourcefulness and pride, ambition and despair are calls to determine what is most important in life.

More than some of Francie's other disappointments, sorrows, and challenges, her English teacher's reaction to Francie's writing talent made me mourn.  When Francie's father died, she poured her emotions into her papers, telling stories about her father, showing  that "in spite of his shortcomings, he had been a good father and a kindly man,"  a practice her teacher--who much preferred Francie's bits about birds and trees--disliked.  Miss Garnder keeps Francie after school to talk about this unfortunate change in subject matter. Francie, confused, responds with:
"You said we could choose our own subjects."
"But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose.  We all admit these things exist.  But one doesn't write about them."
"What does one write about?" Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher's phraseology.
"One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there.  The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always."
"What is beauty?" asked the child.
"I can think of no better definition than Keats': 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'"
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, "Those stories are the truth."
"Nonsense!" exploded Miss Garnder.
Thus continues a painfully beautiful scene, where Francie's creativity and artistic expression gets demeaned and trampled on.  The entire chapter is quotable, but the part that had me in tears, my heart pounding, was when her teacher finished her lecture by demanding:
"When you get home, burn these in the stove.  Apply the match to them yourself.  And as the flames rise, keep saying: 'I am burning ugliness.  I am burning ugliness.'"
 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has you rooting for Francie as you would root for the child inside yourself, fighting against injustice for those who are unable to do it for themselves.  In the end, it is a story of hope and finding joy in the journey.  A quote near the end of the book sums up the bittersweet memories such a childhood provides.

"She'll never have the hard times we had, will she?"
"No.  And she'll never have the fun we had, either."

I can't recommend this book enough.  What amazing characterization and writing.  More than a story, this is an experience that will stick with you.


  1. I found you through the Book Hop and am now following! I see you have A Room with a View on your TBR list. I just finished and reviewed it a day ago. I'm looking forward to reading your posts!

  2. Just visiting via the hop! Great blog :) count me in as a new follower!

    And the plot thickens...

  3. Thanks for the comments, I'll be hopping over to your blogs too. :)

  4. You know, I had actually never heard of it...

  5. Em, it seems to be much more well known inside the states than anywhere else, so don't feel bad! Although the setting is in America, the struggles, experiences and themes are universal...and the writing is beautiful too! You should look into it. :)


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