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[421] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

” They think they’re might lucky that they’ve living and that it’s Christmas again. They can’t see that we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren’t much good. Johnny and the children can’t see how pitiful it is that our neighbors have to make happiness out of this filth and dirt. My children must get out of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us. But how is this to come about? Reading a page from those books everyday and saving pennies in the tin-can bank isn’t enough. Money! ” (27,206)

As I’m reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I ask myself, repeatedly, how and why this is a classic? It surely does not gain strength with the plot line, because of the limitations of plot description. A lot happen but nothing happens. The book cannot be reduced to a single plot line, although it does, chronologically, capture from ages 11 to 16 the life of Francie Nolan, whose childhood and early adolescence are poignantly tainted by poverty, discrimination, and life’s uncertainty. The novel opens in summer 1912, when Francie lives with her parents and younger brother in a third-floor walk-up tenement in the shadow of the hardy urban ailanthus tree, the “only tree that grew out of cement,”, a tree “that liked poor people” (1,6) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

She began to understand that her life might seem revolting to some educated people. She wondered, when she got educated, whether she’d be ashamed of her background. Would she be ashamed of her people; ashamed of brave and truthful Mama who was so proud of her own mother, even though Granma couldn’t read or write; ashamed of Neeley who was such a good honest boy? No! No! If being educated would make her ashamed of what she was, then she wanted none of it. (39,325)

Although this is primarily Francie’s story, the minute details of the people and their lives in a hectic, vivid, and hardscrabble neighborhood, where children sell junks for pennies, simply remind us of our own lives at one point. Francie’s mother Katie, small and pretty but steely and tough, has long given up her desire and takes up the job of a janitoress to support her family. Francie’s father Johnny, warm and charming, is a prisoner of his need of alcohols. The Nolans barely make the rent or pay for bread, even the stale next-day sort sold at the local wholesaler. But Katie has decided on living with dignity, denying any succor from charity. She believes education is the ticket to rescue her children out of dirt and grime.

A girl—in spite of bright-red lipstick and grown-up clothes and a lot of knowledge picked up here and there—who was yet tremulously innocent; a girl who had come face to face with some of the evil of the world and most of its hardships, and yet had remained curiously untouched by the world. (53,463)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a showy piece from a literary point of view. There is little need for any embellishment in Francie’s stories, which are very straight-forward if a bit rambling on occasions. It was somewhat difficult to get through since it is loaded with incessant descriptions. I recognize that the book has a lot of historical significance and does an excellent job describing immigrant’s lives in this period of time. The teacher’s bitterness towards the unfortunate pupils and favoritism over the ones from wealthy families invoke both a sense of indignation and sadness. When told not to write about poverty, drunkenness and starvation because they are ugly and sordid, Francie persists. Added to her fear of needle for vaccination is the ignominy of listening to the doctor and nurse discuss how dirty she is. The strength of this novel derives from its power to evoke universal emotion and compassion. It’s main themes are the fabric of family, the perseverance through hard times, and the limit of love. Whether it’s cruelty, meanness, or mottled moments of joy, a wise contemplative voice oversees the action from time to time, and it is both the voice of Betty Smith herself and that of Francie Nolan, who is forced to grow up and assume adult duty, maturing to equanimity and stability.

493 pp. Harper Perennial edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


7 Responses

  1. This was a favourite of mine when I was Francie’s age. When I re-read it a few years back, at first I was wondering about it too, particularly as some of the writing, structurally-speaking, isn’t that polished. But as I read on, I was caught up in the story’s charm once more and completely engaged by the end of it. This is one novel that I keep more than one copy of; it’s definitely in my Buy not Borrow category. Could it be a “girl thing”?

    • It’s a memorable story that would never flush out of my mind, but I thought some parts are overly descriptive. I like it all the same as I do books with straightforward, chronologically linear plot.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this one for what seems like forever. I saw that you placed this a “borrow” book and seeing how I have it on my middle school shelf that is exactly what I will do when I finally decide it’s time to read this one.

    • I feel compulsive to read this one because it has gone down as a timeless American classics. Some of details of life back in 1900s are very poignant and vivid. I’m glad I have finally read it.

  3. […] [421] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith […]

  4. […] Adventure, Kristi Loves Books, A Garden of Books, read_warbler, Dead White Guys, Ballet Book Worm, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Regular Rumination, My Books. My Life., Reading Through Life, The Roaring 20s, Take Me Away […]

  5. […] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith. Although is not a showy piece from a literary point of view, nor is it a personal favorite, this book’s possibilities and inspirations for women growing up in adverse conditions will never exhaust. The strength of this novel derives from its power to evoke universal emotion and compassion. It’s main themes are the fabric of family, the perseverance through hard times, and the limit of love. […]

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