In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.
The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.
The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.
So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.
It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.
The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.
She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:
“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.
“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”
And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.
“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”
For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.
From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?
“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. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”
I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.
“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.’”
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