The first time I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was many years ago. This week I reread it for my book club gathering, and once again I enjoyed it greatly.
The women in the book club agreed that it’s one of those classics that stay in your mind forever, thanks to its memorable characters and wisdom, if not so much to its plot. The novel is not only profound in its themes but soulful too. One lady brought the dog-eared original copy that she had purchased as a young girl back in 1947! She has treasured it her whole life.
The novel is about the life of immigrants in Brooklyn, in the early 20th century. Betty Smith masterfully depicts all aspects of their life through the Nolans, a typical family of four: Johnny, an alcoholic father—irresponsible, but loving (not stereotypically abusive); Katie, a hardworking, headstrong mother—the breadwinner; and their children, Neely and Francie. There’s courtship and marriage, raising a family, love, friendship, loss, alcoholism, assimilation into the mainstream society, discrimination based on social status, you name it.
Smith describes in detail the Nolans’ wretched poverty and their struggle to survive. But it is through Francie, an ambitious prodigy, that the author elevates the mere survival to the realm of success. Having been read a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare by her mother every single night since her babyhood, Francie loves books. When she learns how to read on her own, she decides that from now on she will “never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends, for there is one [book] for every mood.” Thus thanks to her thirst for education and her perseverance, she accomplishes so much at fifteen that women in their twenties can only dream of.
There’s a lot of folk wisdom in the novel. When Katie complains to her sister about her husband, Sissy responds, “You married him. There was something about him that caught your heart. Hang on to that and forget the rest.” Timeless advice to all married people, I think.
Or, you as a parent can protect your children only so much. Katie says, “The time comes at last when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. … One sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give our life to spare them.” Sounds unfair, but very true.
I’m impressed by Katie Nolan’s dignity. She’s dirt-poor, but she is too proud to accept charity. She regards people’s pity as a disgrace. She can hardly make ends meet, unable to afford anything except for the very basics for her family, yet her urge to rise above her poverty is so strong that once in a while she “splurges.” She tips a waiter for ice-cream four nickels, instead of one, thus sacrificing three loaves of bread. “Keep the change,” she said grandly. And then, to her children, “I don’t care. For once I wanted us to feel like millionaires. And if twenty cents can make us feel rich, it’s a cheap price to pay.” Wow!
Despite the characters’ constant deprivation, the novel leaves you with warm feelings. I would certainly recommend it to every family with children.