Book #86

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Wholesomely bleak seems like a true oxymoron, but it’s a wonderful way to describe this novel. Poverty and joy, cruelty and kindness, struggles and celebrations; Smith gives all, and it truly is glorious.

The novel traverses the life of Francie, a Brooklyn girl in the early 1900s. At our first meeting, Francie is eleven years old, and we’re allowed to make our way through life with her until her late teens. Smith wonderfully details the things that excite and fascinate her at eleven, only to slowly advance her into almost-adulthood, where very little is big and wonderful any more. It’s a sad, yet relatable fact that we all become apathetic and less imaginative as the years progress. It’s an excruciating blow to an adult reader, which made me wish I’d read this earlier in life when hope was abundant.

Francie’s life, and the life of her family, is difficult. She’s given a poverty-stricken home, an alcoholic father, and the curse of being born a woman. Every obstacle seems to be against her, and yet Francie sets her eyes forward to the future she wants, sometimes erring in her determination, but always returning to her resilient personality.

Smith consistently hits the family with tragedy and woe, yet always juxtaposes this with the notion that the world has more good in it than evil. Every single black cloud comes with some sort of silver lining, whether that be the kindness of humanity, or simply a life lesson. Francie develops throughout the novel as a result of the struggles in her childhood, becoming the woman her family knew she could be, and it’s heartwarming to watch her grow.

It was glorious to see Brooklyn set in this age; I loved reading the social commentary from Smith here. One particularly interesting mainstay was the idea of ‘what will the neighbours think’, present in situations ranging from babies born out of wedlock, to the noise created by a husband aspiring to become a one-man band. What other people will think or say is far more prevalent in poor communities than in the wealthier, and Smith presents this as bring down to a stronger grasp on morals and religion.

The different ethnicities shown in the book also make for fascinating analysis. Although Smith reinforces that they simply do not mix together, Francie often visits Jewish and Chinese neighbourhoods to buy provisions, witnesses Germans drown out their holiday singing, and even mistakenly offends someone by using a racist slur which she wasn’t aware was a slur. The commentary is very subtle, and yet the differences in comparison to how we behave now are clear, and Smith makes very apparent hints towards the status gained by those whose parents were born in America. Even Francie feels pride as she stands up in (a very white) class to announce both her, and her parents, had been born there. Many had parents who had made the journey looking for a better life, so this makes Francie feel like a true American. I doubt I need say more.

Although this could be considered a coming of age tale, particularly for young adults, I absolutely loved reading this as it’s so much more than those things. It’s heartbreak, it’s love, it’s family, and most importantly, it’s human. Thank you, Betty Smith.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," thought Francie, "something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”