A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith, copyright 1943.
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source: Personal Collection – Bought New
I’m no longer sure how I came to have this book recommended to me. I could have sworn that it was recommended by an Aussie friend as a great example of contemporary Australian Literature. That, however, cannot possibly be the case, as Betty Smith was born, raised and died in the United States. In any case, I am quite delighted that it ended up on my TBR pile, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. I sympathize with Jen from Devourer of Books in her astonishment of having made it this far in life without having previously read the book.
Set in New York between the turn of the twentieth-century and the beginning of WWI, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the poignant coming-of-age-story of Francie Nolan, a precocious young lady growing up amidst a backdrop of poverty. Francie is born with a caul, which is supposed to be a sign that a child will do great things in her lifetime, but with the difficulties facing the Nolan family, it is hard to see a bright future for her. Johnny, Francie’s father, is a part-time singing waiter and full-time alcoholic; he’s not a mean drunk, just a useless one. Her mother Katie is a person of strong convictions who is forced to pick up the slack from her hopeless husband and is determined to make the right choices raising her children in order to give them a better start than she had. Katie’s mother once told her that education was the most important thing to ensure that her children get ahead in life. Francie’s grandmother’s idea of education was reading the Bible and Shakespeare and before long it becomes apparent that even Shakespeare won’t be enough to bring change to the next generation of Nolans; somehow they will prevail. The resilience of the Nolan Family is enviable, by any standards, and is really what defines this American classic.
“When an epidemic of mumps broke out in the school Katie went into action against communicable diseases. She made two flannel bags, sewed a bud of garlic in each one, attached a clean corset string and made the children wear them around their necks under their shirts…Now whether there was a witch’s charm in the garlic, whether the strong fumes killed the germs or whether Francie escaped contracting anything because the infected children gave her a wide berth, or whether she and Neeley had naturally strong constitutions, is not known. However, it was a fact that not once in all the years of school were Katie’s children ever sick.” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 161 – 162.
I know that’s kind of a long quote, but I felt it really summed up the determination of Francie’s mother to do right by her family, and family, after all, is really what this story is about. It is with the support of her family that Francie morphs from a shy, ostracised little girl into an outgoing and self-assured young lady. There are some unsightly and unseemly circumstances that are suffered over the course of this story and the strength of the Nolan family through it all left me in awe. Everyone watches out for each other, even the futile Johnny. While there was a tendency for things to turn out overly rosy and the ending was a little bit convenient, it did nothing to take away from the poignancy of the story or the beautiful prose of Betty Smith.
One thing that I really enjoyed in this book was the way in which the method of telling the story changed occasionally. For instance, there is a point where Katie is giving birth and the event is fleshed out partly by a series of short paragraphs in which we learn the thoughts of each of the tenants in the building to the sound of Katie’s birth pains. There is another chapter, somewhere in the middle of the book, in which the story is told by way of entries from Francie’s journal. I found that these brief changes helped to keep things flowing and renewed my attention to the primary narrative.
All in all this was a wonderful and heart lifting read that I highly recommend.
* P.S. – I kid you not, up until my final proofread, I had this book listed as being authored by Betty White.
Check out this far better review: