February 18, 2014

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie Nolan. The book opens on a summer afternoon in 1912 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with the sun shining through the branches of a tree called the Tree of Heaven. This tree had "pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas." This tree grew lushly amidst the tenement houses and reached for the sky.

Francie is 11 years old and lives in a humble apartment in a run down neighborhood with her brother and mother and father. Her father, Johnny Nolan, is quite a charmer who sings and waits tables but spends the majority of his money on alcohol. The financial support for the family falls to Katie, Francie's mother, who works as a janitor in exchange for rent.

Francie loves to learn and enjoys school, but the neighborhood school is a cruel place. Out walking one day, Francie sees a beautiful school in another neighborhood. She longs to go to that school and, ever hopeful, she shares this longing with her father. Johnny is a dreamer too and he finds a way for Francie to transfer to this more gracious school where she thrives and becomes quite the writer of stories.

Francie is encouraged to write because:

Truth and fancy were so mixed up in her mind - as they are in the mind of every lonely child - that she didn't know which was which. But teacher made these two things clear to her …. "In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.

Francie writes lovely stories that reflect the way she wishes things to be. She is innocent.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming of age story though, and in this type of story we witness the painful loss of innocence. We see this in Francie's development as a writer. She begins to write "sordid" stories that reflect more truthfully her own life experiences. Francie's English teacher disapproves of this new writing and wants her to burn the "ugly" compositions. Francie refuses and, instead, burns all of the old flowery writings that have nothing to do with her life experiences. In this symbolic loss of innocence we see Francie become aware of her identity as a person and writer.

These changes, as anyone who has survived childhood knows, are painful and we grieve our lost innocence. Francie, likewise, grieves for all she has lost in the scene with the roses. This scene was so powerful I felt the pain of my own experience all over again and it left me in tears. I guess this is your warning not to read this scene in public!

Coming of age stories are meant to bring up a lot of feelings in the reader. They touch on a shared experience. They speak of longings and overwhelming feelings. A time when we learn that things CHANGE, but we don't want them to. We don't like endings because, "The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself …. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day." These are powerful feelings that we learn to manage as adults, but in the emerging adult they create emotional chaos.

A message of hope usually goes along with the pain of a coming of age story and, I suspect, this is why those of us who like such stories keep reading them. Throughout the book Francie remains sensitive and caring and hopeful. In the end, she looks to the future without denying her past. And the Tree of Heaven in her yard, that was not gently tended, keeps on growing as a symbol of perseverance and hope.

My thoughts:

I absolutely LOVED this book. The author writes beautifully and captures the intense feelings that come with "growing up." I truly cared about the characters and thought the author treated them very sympathetically even though they, like us, are quite less than perfect. Many social themes are woven throughout A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though the author claimed she did not mean the book to be a social commentary. This book would make a fantastic book club read with its variety of themes. Take a look at the themes listed below for conversation ideas. I wrote SO many quotes from this book into my reading journal and look forward to revisiting the book through these quotes until time to read it again.

About the author and the book:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written by Betty Smith and was first published in 1943. It is largely autobiographical.

Themes:

  • Class and poverty
  • Education
  • Gender and sex
  • Perseverance and hope
  • Loss of innocence
  • The American Dream

Who should read this book?

I recommend this book to most adults and some adolescents. Those adults who already know they do not like the emotions that go along with coming of age stories might want to skip this book. Francie asks her father about the strong and confusing feelings she is experiencing and he responds that he suspects she has a bad case of "growing up." Adolescents in the midst of "growing up" might find the book helpful as they navigate "all the feelings," but others might find it overwhelming. Anyone interested in the variety of themes listed above will most likely appreciate this book.

Other reviews:

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as part of a read-a-long hosted by Lesley at Words of a Reader on YouTube (BookTube). You can link over to her channel on YouTube and search for her review video when it gets posted or, check back here for a direct link. I will edit this post and add links to the responses of other readers as they are posted and I become aware of them. Let me know if you have a review.

11 comments:

  1. I loved this book too! I hated her father though. I was so mad at him throughout.

    The part that stands out the most for me is when she goes to get her vaccinations, and the doctor makes comments about her dirty arm.

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    1. For some reason I was not overly angry at her father (though at times I thought I should be).

      You are right about the vaccination scene. Her resolve not to show how hurt she was by the comments and being viewed as an animal that would not even understand what was being said about her … now THAT set me off and my heart just broke for her. I wanted to reach into the book and SMACK that doctor.

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  2. I can feel your enthusiasm with this novel - a true classic IMO

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    1. Definitely a classic! I've been trying to read more 20th century classics. I haven't always thought of books written last century in that way, but have been lately. I've got some Kerouac up to read soon. Not sure how I'm going to like that, but we'll see.

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  3. You point out things I'd long forgotten...or, more likely, never saw quite so clearly. That terrible loss of innocence, so touching and so final. You've out me quite in the mood to read this again, as twice is still not enough.

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    1. There is so much to see and think about in this novel. The big theme, of course, is loss of innocence but I was surprised at all of the social issues woven throughout. It is definitely worth multiple readings!

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  4. I read this ages ago. I loved it. I really need to reread it!

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    1. Definitely worth a reread. Multiple rereads even!

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  5. Your post makes me want to reread this all-time favorite!

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    1. It is now one of my favorites too. Looks like I got my love for this book across if I made you want to reread it :)

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  6. I never read this book until recently and loved it too. It should be a classic as its themes are universal and timeless. I wonder what took me so long!! I too am trying to read 20th century classics and finding they are just that....wonderful classics that shine on!

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