A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 

Alright, so for this rotation in Reading Between the Wines (my real-world book club) we decided to do a round of favorites. We said that you should pick a book that falls in to your Top 5 favorites. I know, for us #booknerds it’s always so hard to narrow it down. But I pitched it this way: if you had to think about a book that you always think about, a book that you love to reread, a book that you always recommend to people, that’s the one you should pick. It’ll be a nice little insight in to my fellow book-clubbers, and when we get together for the month we can learn what specifically about this book spoke to the member that chose it.

This is a coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan. She is a second-generation American (which is practically unheard of at that time) growing up in the early 1900s in the slums of Brooklyn. Her mother Katie is essentially a cleaning lady, while also picking up various other small jobs. Her father Johnny is a drunk, but when sober, acts as a singing waiter.

“Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well.”

Francie is the oldest of three children. When she was born, she was a sickly child. Everyone thought she wouldn’t survive. And though Katie struggled with Francie, she new she would make it.

“Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up 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.”

Unfortunately when Neeley comes along (real name Cornelius) and is much healthier and happier and is super dependent on Katie, Francie’s relationship is severed. Katie decides that she’s going to put most, if not all, of her effort in to rearing Neeley and making sure he has exactly what he needs. Why? Because he reminds her of…..

But Francie, despite the ugliness of growing up in the slums (being called “dirty”, being pinched by weird shopkeepers, playing the North Pole game because there’s no money for food, the loss of someone close to her), maintains her optimism, her drive, and her determination to be happy.

“Neeley, if you had to die, wouldn’t it be wonderful to die now — while you believed that everything was perfect, the way this night is perfect?”

She comes to cherish this neighborhood that she’s grown up in. She wants to go to college and learn. The character of Francie Nolan really resonated with me. Books are her escape, as they are mine. She wants to read them all, not because she has to prove anything, but for the simple pleasure of having something new to read and working her way methodically through the available literature.

Smith’s writing was easy to follow and I found myself thinking about the book when it wasn’t in my hands, wondering how Francie would turn out. Or what was going to happen with Sissy and John. Would she ever make it out of the slums? The writing haunted me. Not in a scary way, a thoughtful, prosaic way. And I love learning new things when I read. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I like to read so much, so I can teach myself new things.

“Sissy gave her a fat little cloth strawberry for cleaning the needle.”

Really? It’s a strawberry? It always looked like a tomato to me, but I guess that’s because mine didn’t have any pins in it so there were no pinheads dotting the surface to make it look like a strawberry. And it cleans the needle? This little nugget blew my mind (clearly).

Unfortunately this book ends pretty abruptly. I wouldn’t necessarily say that there was a cliffhanger, but I would have liked to follow Francie in to adulthood. But I have a feeling that Betty Smith ended this exactly where she wanted it to and it was nice glimpse in to her conscious. I got the sense that this was a faithful retelling of Smith’s childhood or an imagined telling of what she wished her childhood was like. Any further in to Francie’s life and the reader might have become disenchanted with Francie. I want to believe that she could hold on to her optimism throughout her adulthood, but realistically I know that probably wouldn’t be feasible.

But Francie made it to adulthood….

“A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again.”

…and she’ll probably haunt me for the rest of mine.

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