Book Review – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Moving day. Again. Thankfully, moving from a place you’ve been housesitting for a month is much easier than real, full on moving. I’ve loved our time in Roberts Creek; I’ll miss the little community here, the beaches, and our doggy friends. But I’m excited for the next step and shifting from Roberts Creek to Sechelt is a fairly minor move. There are new explorations in my future.

I haven’t posted a book review in a while although I have been reading as voraciously as ever. I have a couple reviews in my back pocket and I hope to start sharing them again. Let’s start now.

To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.

Somehow this year I’ve ended up reading three books set in the Brooklyn community of Williamsburg. This wasn’t intentional but it has given me an interesting outline of the history of Williamsburg. The first two books I read (My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman) are set in the Hasidic Jewish community that grew in Williamsburg around World War II. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written earlier than the other two books and its setting is in the years before World War I. Although our narrator, Francie Nolan, refers to a few Jews in the neighbourhood – namely the Jewish bakery – her Williamsburg seems to be populated mostly by poor Irish and German immigrants. Francie is the oldest child of Katie and Johnny Nolan. We learn that she is unique amongst her classmates because both of her parents were born in America. She and her brother become the first in their family to complete the sixth grade.

There are many stories of little girls growing up. There are many stories of Irish poverty. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn combines these in a way that is tragic, poignant, funny, and inspiring. The purpose and meaning behind this novel is best summed up by Francie herself. An aspiring writer, Francie does well in school, writing sweet, airy compositions. But a desire grows in her to write about something more.

Since her father’s death, Francie had stopped writing about birds and trees and My Impressions. Because she missed him so, she had taken to writing little stories about him. She tried to show that, in spite of his shortcomings, he had been a good father and a kindly man. She had written three such stories which were marked “C” instead of the usual “A”.

Her teacher says to Francie: “Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

Well, Betty Smith wrote about these things. Francie is the child of an alcoholic father and a mother who must work as a janitor to keep her family fed. Throughout the novel we see the family scrimp together pennies to eat stale bread. Her mother attempts to make games out of the days in which they haven’t eaten. Her father is drinking himself to death. Yet through Francie’s eyes we learn how much she loves her parents and her brother. Their poverty is dark and tragic, but the people never are. Francie is filled with imagination and an undying desire to learn more. Smith gives a nobility, not to the poverty of the people, but to the people themselves.

This isn’t Heidi or Anne of Green Gables or Little Women, as much as I’ve enjoyed each of those books. This is an honest story where children starve, little girls are attacked by strange men, and authority figures look down on children from poor homes. Francie comes out on the bottom as often she comes out on top and we’re never really sure where her life will end up. Poverty is never simple, just as people are never simple, and the novel demonstrates this fact.

[Francie] was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was of 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 Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk.

One final favourite quote:

The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and lie in her imagination.

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