A Tree Grows in Brooklyn / Betty Smith
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, c1943.
I've always kind of put off reading this book; feeling that it was an American classic of the nostalgic kind, one that I probably wouldn't like very much. But for some reason I've been in a classics reading mood this last while, so as soon as I finished Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute, I picked up this one.
And there were certainly some thematic similarities - a young girl growing up in poverty, with a ne'er do well father and a mother who is working and holding the family together (and who ends up pregnant again near the end, just as the mother does in Tin Flute). Both families live in sections of big cities which, in their times, were slums, and today are gentrified, hipster places to live.
But otherwise, there are also enough differences that this was a unique reading experience. Despite my reservations about it, I read it and read it -- I couldn't put it down. I thought about it all day when I wasn't reading it, until I could get home again to finish it. I really loved it.
The plot is probably very well known to most of my readers; little Francie Nolan grows up in Brooklyn (Williamsburg) with a brother barely a year younger, a hard-working mother of Austrian descent, and a charming Irish father. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to get much work in his line, as a singing waiter, and any tips he gets go straight to drink. Francie's mother - and her sisters - hold the family together. The story is told from Francie's perspective, and the chapters are a bit episodic, telling us about how she and her brother collect and sell junk weekly, or how they ended up getting piano lessons, how her aunt gets married and remarried 3 times without the assistance of the law, and in one particularly harrowing chapter, how a sexual predator stalks young girls over one long summer.
The story examines this small family and both their successes and harder moments. It also creates a dream-like Brooklyn in the early 1900s, full of milk wagons, junk dealers, pawn shops, fruit stands, barbers, incipient unions, harsh schools and more. Francie's emotional development from child to young adult is the core of the book, and her fascination with books, words and education is key to her future. Her description of the tree that grows in their yard is a vital symbol of persistence, and is intimately linked with her childhood reading. The only thing that made me sad about Francie's constant reading was the depiction of the local librarian as a cold and uninterested woman who didn't like children and paid no attention to Francie despite her regular visits and clear enthusiasm for the library. But that's likely an occupational hazard, always noticing those kind of things.
I was really absorbed by this story, and by the added information in this edition on Betty Smith's life and her own inspirations for writing this highly autobiographical novel. I was also fascinated that it was so immediately popular, and that army editions were printed for soldiers to read - I can't see it being hugely popular with young men, with its frank talk about female lives and bodies, but what do I know?
I found the clear voice of the author absolutely engaging, and was really interested in seeing this perspective on growing up in poverty. Francie finds her way out via education, not through business or marriage -- as the book ends she is heading off to college thanks to a few new factors in her world. And there is definite hope for the future. I'm glad I overcame my aversion and finally picked this up. It was a wonderful read.