Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

NY: Harper, 1943.

It’s the summer of 1912 and Francie Nolan of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, is eleven years ago. She and her parents and her ten-year-old brother, Neely, are a poor family and they know it. Her beloved Irish father, Johnny, is a part-time singing waiter and a nearly full-time alcoholic. Her petite, black-eyed Austrian mother, Katie, is the janitor (“janitress” here) for three tenement buildings, in return for their rent on a small flat. But with all this, they get by, though it’s nearly always a struggle.

Everybody likes the dapper Johnny, who seems incapable of doing anything right. Everybody respects the steel-cored Katie, who is equally incapable of making a misstep. This entire book could have been written about either of them and the reader probably would be just as satisfied. But Francie is the focus: Intelligent, thoughtful, observant, imaginative, dogged, tough — she’s all those things. She’s also lonely and pretty much friendless. The narrative follows her through the next six years as she grows up physically, mentally, and emotionally, changing from a ragged street kid who collects junk to sell for pennies into a mature, confident young woman of seventeen who has skipped high school for a job in the City and yet is going off to college, having passed the regents’ exams on the strength of summer courses. Francie is one of those kids who understands things. The book isn’t exactly a novel, in the sense that there’s no overarching plotline and nothing much of importance happens. It’s difficult to answer the standard inquiry: “What’s it about?” It’s more of an oil painting in words, a portrait of the Brooklyn of a century ago and the people who lived there and who, with all their tribulations, still thought it the most wonderful city in the world. The style is very plain and straightforward, yet quietly poetic (which is partly why it’s always included on school reading lists), but Smith spins her story out in such a way that you can’t wait to find out what happens next to her characters. What holds everything together are the book’s universal themes of family, interdependence, determination, and the power of learning, as well as a profound realism regarding both the good things in life and the bad. Betty Smith herself grew up largely as Francie did — she originally wrote the book as a memoir but was convinced by her editor to recast it as a bildungsroman — and she went on to do memorable things in literature. The reader will have no doubt that Francie (who probably has added “bildungsroman” to her vocabulary by the end of the book) is headed for a similar future. This book and the people in it — and Brooklyn — will stay with you for a long time.

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Published in: on 6 March 2011 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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