A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
Arrow Books, 2000

Originally published 1943

This is one of the few books on my shelves today that I bought pre-blogging and was nevertheless recommended over the internet. Ah, the old livejournal days. Or perhaps it was the Silverchair forum? Who knows. What I do know is that people have repeatedly told me that I needed to read this and that I would love it. No pressure, or anything. I often put off reading a book that everyone loves because I am so scared I will not appreciate it as they did. Lucky, then, that I did love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

This is the story of the Nolan family, who live in Brooklyn. Poor like the rest of their neighbourhood, the family tries to survive week by week, while Katie and Johnny also hope to offer their children a better future through education. Although the reader gets to know the whole family, Katie, Johnny, their son Neeley, their parents and sisters, this is really the story of Francie. Francie is the protagonist of the book, the oldest child of Katie and Johnny, who loves her drunkard father and wishes her mother would love her more, who we follow from age 11 to 17, and who flourishes, despite the difficult circumstances in which she grew up, like the Tree of Heaven to which the title refers and that grows in the most difficult circumstances.

One of the things I loved about this book was the nuanced characterisation of almost everyone. From the moment Neeley is born, it is established that Katie loves her son more than her daughter. Despite the unfairness of her preference, Katie is nevertheless a very admirable character. She steps up as the main provider of the family, because her husband is often off drunk. She works until her hand are rough and painful from working, she runs the household, she trains her children in doing the grocery’s, and the reader is invited to feel sympathetic towards her despite her preference, when her trials in childbirth are highlighted. Johnny, though a drunk, and at times all too good at running from his responsibilities (Arg did I want to shake him in one of the childbirth scenes, when he talked about his hardships instead of his wife’s), he deeply cares for his children, and often helps them to chase their dreams and to respect themselves. Likewise, Sissy, who is portrayed as straying from the norm of one marriage, and instead has a chain of lovers, and remarries without obtaining a divorce, stands up for them when Francie is bullied in school and her mother is too busy to care.

Betty Smith makes it hard not to care about any of the characters she introduces, and yet, Francie will always have a particularly special place in my heart. Francie is a reader, and I think any book bloggers would find it hard not to  feel sympathy for her.

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

Apart from a resolution to read a book a day, Francie also assign herself to read every book in the library starting from the letter A. When I read that, I had a brief flashback to my own ten-year-old self, reading about Matilda who had read the local library from A-Z. I wanted to be her. Had I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was younger, I am sure I would have felt the same.

It’s not just Francie’s fondness for reading that made me feel for her. It was her survival through all these circumstances thrown at her. It is her care for her brother, despite knowing their mother favours him and his easier life being a boy. It is her love for her father, despite the way in which he disappoints his family. It is her standing up for herself and her dreams, but still being able to give them up to take care of her mother and brother. Her strength and her survival are inspiring. They are also part of what could be called the American Dream aspect of the novel, a theme I am not always fond off since the idea that riches and poverty are of your own making often skips over the difficult circumstances some people start with. However, in this book the central theme seems to be making the best of your circumstances. There is no glossing over the difficulties of growing up in poverty. Smith’s descriptions can be quite brutally direct, but there also is no loss of hope, without judging those who do in some ways give up.

Betty Smith is incredibly respectful and honest in her portrayal of the circumstances and lives of the poor immigrant community in the United States. Besides the coming of age story of Francie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also a portrait of the decade between 1910 and 1920.

Originally, Eva and I meant to read this book together, but Eva decided to stop reading about halfway through, because she didn’t enjoy it much. One thing she said stuck with me, and that is the fact that Smith seems to favour telling over showing. I was loving the atmosphere of the book, I was loving the descriptions, and I had written down a ton a quotes. When Eva mentioned this aspect though, I could not help but notice it a little too. In part, this may have been because the third part of the novel became a little slow to me at one point. Nevertheless, I can’t help but love this novel. And to feel for Francie. And to want to hug this book close.

And so I will repeat what everyone has told me all those years: if you have not read this yet, you should give it a try. I think you might just love it.

Other Opinions: The Novel WorldReading Matters, Fingers & Prose, Library Queue, At Pemberley, Whimpulsive, Amused, Bemused and Confused, Book Chronicle, That’s What She Read, Reading Reflections, Everyday Reading, Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity, So Many Books, So Little Time, Bookworm Sarah, Serendipitous Readings, Start Narrative Here, Book Journey, Booknotes by Lisa, Bold. Blue. Adventure, Kristi Loves Books, A Garden of Books, read_warbler, Dead White Guys, Ballet Book Worm, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Regular Rumination, My Books. My Life.Reading Through Life, The Roaring 20s, Take Me Away Reading, Rebecca Reads, Devourer of Books, A Literary Odyssey, Man of la Book, 5minutesforbooks, Book Addiction, It’s all about books, The Novel World, Lovely Little Shelf, The Literary Lioness, BookLust, Maw Books Blog.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

13 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader)

    I read this in school when I was about thirteen and absolutely adored it. It was one of those books that just got to me and I remember tearing up a lot while reading it, particularly around the middle. I haven’t reread it since but it would be interesting to see what I think of all these years later.

  2. zibilee

    I loved this book and read it ages ago. I wrote a review that I never posted because upon rereading it, I felt that it highlighted how sad and dark the story was, and after a little bit of time had passed, I was able to see that there was much hope and perseverance in the story as well. I need to go back and rewrite, but I think you make some excellent points about this book. It was such a beautifully told picture of what it must have been like to grow up impoverished during this time. It just made me so darn sad!

  3. buriedinprint

    You’ve quoted my favourite passages! I understand what Eva meant about the style; I didn’t notice it when I read it as a girl, but I did notice it when I re-read a few years ago, but as I went along in the re-read, there were so many delicate touches to the characterization (and she takes on so many interesting subjects from a feminist-y perspective) that I hadn’t noticed as a younger reader, that I didn’t mind about the kind of nuts-and-bolts feeling to some of the prose. And, as you’ve said, Francie’s bookishness alone is incredibly charming!

  4. Melissa

    I love this one. I couldn’t help admire Katie, even though she was a hard character. She was the force that held her family together.

  5. Mona

    Hurray! I’m glad you enjoyed this one, as it’s an especial favorite of mine. I think many book bloggers would enjoy it, though I think many love it when they come to it earlier in life (e.g. teens or early twenties). I was eleven when I first read it and identified with Francie for much of my adolescence.

  6. Aarti

    WOW, so many reviews to link to on this one! I loved this book when I read it this past summer. That may have been because I was living in New York (which, granted, isn’t Brooklyn, but made me feel some kinship) and going to school in Michigan (where Francie eventually goes!). But I think it was mostly because I loved the characters so much.

  7. Pingback: Sunday Salon: The TBR-Pile “Problem” | Iris on Books

  8. Drea

    I recently read this for the first time, and I loved it! I have never been able to choose one book as my favorite until this one! I found it enchanting, sad at times and real. I HAD to buy a copy so that I can read it again and again.


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