A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943).
Summary: A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn.
Published in 1943, this was one of those “books that went to war,” a special edition of which was carried in the rucksacks of soldiers in World War II as a reminder of home. Many wrote Betty Smith to tell her of what it meant to them.
The question one asks is what the abiding power of this book is. My sense of the answer is found in the sheer determination and grit of the character through whom the story is told, Francie Nolan. We first meet her as a young girl on a third floor fire escape, reading one of the latest books she has taken from the library (withdrawn in alphabetical order), looking over the patch of dirt out of which a tree had grown, “neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew upon green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas….No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky….It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district.”
I’m convinced that Francie is that tree–having a peculiar beauty, a resilience that thrives even under the toughest circumstances, struggling to reach for the sky and the stars, growing lushly amid the tenements of Brooklyn. She tells of her and her brother Neely, collecting rags and scrap, to bring home the pennies that help the family survive on their alcoholic father’s sporadic wages as a singing waiter and their mother’s cleaning work.
Smith vividly portrays the life from penny candy shops, to indifferent librarians, to brother-sister spats, loving her father’s voice, confirmation and first communion–and a terrifying attempted rape. Katie, Francie’s mother provides the steel that holds the family together while Johnny brings both the fun and the tragedy. Katie insists the children read a page of the Bible and Shakespeare each night, and imparts to them the importance of an education she never had. Francie picks this up, first lying her way into a better school, later longing to go on to high school and even college. When a teacher marks Francie’s compositions down despite her writing skills, rather than write the sweet drivel the teacher wants, Francie stops writing and takes a lower grade.
Johnny Nolan dies short of 35 and the family’s struggle for existence becomes yet more precarious, not only because of Johnny’s death, but also that he left Katie pregnant with Laurie. Wages from McGarrity’s bar help some. Then comes a painful scene where Katie decides upon Francie and Neely’s graduation that Francie would work while Neely goes to school. In spite of her disappointment, she holds a number of jobs, becoming the family breadwinner, even taking summer college courses. We watch a girl become a young woman, both with a determined sense of self and longings for love.
In the backdrop of her story are Katie’s twos sisters, Sissy and Evy. Evy’s husband seems a pitiful excuse of a man. Sissy goes through a series of “Johns” with whom she lives, in the quest to bear one live child until she finally meets a John named Steve. Through the conversations of these sisters the paradox of how good men are hard to find, men like McShane the policeman and aspiring politician with a sickly wife, and the attraction of men who end up not making good husbands. Most of the women whose characters are fleshed out are strong characters, even while they lack the formal power of men.
The other strong character in the book is Brooklyn itself. Smith evokes a sense of what the place was like in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the character who takes center stage is Francie. When America’s entry into the war is announced, this is how she reacts:
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
I’ll leave you to discover if Francie realizes all her dreams and is the “something” to which she aspires. What I will say is that the tree about which we’ve heard nothing through most of the narrative recurs in the final pages. Chopped down, it does not die, but rises again. “It lived! And nothing could destroy it.”