- What: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- Who: Betty Smith
- Pages: 493
- Genre: Classic literature
- Subgenre: Coming of age
- Published: 1943
- The lit: of 5 flames
Every New Yorker has his or her favorite neighborhood spots. While living in my first Brooklyn apartment, mine was the grilled cheese place that opened the same year. Erin had a knack for finding cute little coffee shops as well as a love for the Brooklyn Museum a few blocks away. Jamie’s was Ample Hills, named for Walt Whitman’s words. And we all reveled in the days we ate at Tom’s without an hour wait. It’s these places that we recall in our memories.
Francie Nolan had those places too. In early 1900s Brooklyn, it was McGarrity’s saloon, where her father fed his addiction. There was the shabby yet charming house that the Nolans falsely used as their address so Francie could transfer schools. Carney’s junk shop was where she and her brother, Neely, would lug their knickknacks to earn a penny. And of course there’s the library whose librarian didn’t look at Francie her entire childhood.
These places are remembered because they’re where we grew up; we all have them. It’s this connection of coming of age, as well as strong characters and a touching theme, that earned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn four flames.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place from 1902 until 1919 with the Nolan family, which lives in extreme poverty in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. The story follows the oldest daughter, Francie, as the family struggles with poverty, education, alcoholism, and gender roles (though this could be formed from a 21st century’s perspective). Francie is a mere child when the book starts. We watch her grow from a young, innocent girl to a woman of 17 who is forced to grow up much too soon, forego her education to keep her family afloat, and give up some of her idealism that is quintessential Francie.
If you’re a reader who needs a clear-cut, one-sentence summary, then I’m not sure this book is for you. There’s no one defining moment, no climax, no lessons learned. My copy’s foreward by Anna Quindlen speaks to the lack of plot but emphasizes that the story doesn’t need one. “… (It) illustrates the limitations of plot description,” she writes. “In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens. Of course that’s not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens … But those things happen in the slow, sure, meandering way that they happen in the slow, sure, meandering river of real existence…”
Quindlen is right: It is slow. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was on its way to being much less lit until I reached the halfway point (and when the middle of a book doesn’t come until 250 pages in, it can be a bit of a struggle). However, the story picks up just like our perception of time as we age. I remember being eight years old and thinking I’d never grow out of my youth. And now I can’t believe I’ve been out of school for 3.5 years.
“As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed.” — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
When Francie is young, she describes every little detail of her life. She’s curious about the people and places around her and often muses about the places beyond Brooklyn. I feel like I know every corner of Williamsburg and the eccentricities of its residents from her descriptions. Although poignant, these observations slow down the story, which is why the first half of the book took me a few months to read (whereas the latter half took five days). As the plot gathers momentum, relative to her age, so does the dialogue and her observations. Francie becomes more aware and accepting of reality and less naive and descriptive. She seemed to be 10 years old forever, and then suddenly she was 17, and I was finished with the book, which is how life can feel. I respect this symbolism in structure even if I struggled through it at first.
Coming of age stories always get me. But Francie’s story has more heartbreak than any child should face. Her family is so poor that they go some days without eating. And although her mom, Katie, dreams of her children attending high school and then college, she’s faced with the harsh reality that few impoverished Brooklyn kids escape this cycle. Francie’s nearly desperate to return to high school rather than permanently join the work force. As someone who shares a love of learning with and has the same curiosity as Francie, my heart broke with hers as she learned her fate.
“On the job, I’m sixteen. I have to look and act sixteen instead of fourteen. Next year I’ll be fifteen in years but two years older in the way I’m living; too old to change back into a school girl.” — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Maybe I just related to Francie and that’s why I liked the book so much. Just like her, I love books and walking quiet streets at night. I too have a deep respect for my mother and for her persistence. I also fell in love in Brooklyn for the first time, struggled on my own there, (though my struggles pale in comparison to Francie’s and my Brooklyn was a smidgen different), and felt alone at times. Like Francie, I learned new things about myself and learned truths about the world.
So Francie and I share a unique connection: We both grew up in Brooklyn.
“What is it then between us?What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,I too had receiv’d identity by my body,That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” — Walt Whitman