“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
For being a novel that deals mostly with themes of strength-through-adversity, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a captivating read.
This is a largely autobiographical novel—Betty Smith’s first published work. It chronicles the life of Francie Nolan, starting in 1912 when is 11-years-old. The book follows her through becoming a full woman at the age of 17. Francie’s family was a poor one. Her father, an alcoholic who occasionally kept regular work. Her mother worked tirelessly to keep the family afloat and held tightly to the dreams that she had for her children. Everyone talked about how profoundly beautiful her mother was—but she was self-conscious about her rough and ragged hands that came from working so hard to make a living.
The book itself reads an awful lot like a huge collection of short stories. Nearly every chapter goes through the classic story structure of building crisis, climax, and dénouement. Because of this, it didn’t feel like the novel itself was particularly plot-driven but I did keep reading because I was so interested in the characters. Everyone has their dreams and plans to have them realized—you want to see if things will shake out in their favor. But also, since there’s a high climax in every single story, there are some parts that maybe don’t seem all that believable. I don’t mind that–I can suspend disbelief for a while, particularly when our narrator is a child who is just trying to figure out all these things happening around her all the time.
I loved this book so much more than I had ever expected. For starters, I tend to gravitate towards contemporary literature. The idea of reading a book that took place before WWI, did not particularly appeal to me. Secondly, I haven’t talked to a single person who read this book and didn’t count it as one of the best of all time. That kind of hype can make me feel obligated to like something. And like a teenager, I tend to rebel against that. So if this book was able to break through those two seemingly impenetrable barriers, it must be really, really good. These things kept me from picking up the book right away but once I started, I only ever put it down reluctantly.
In a book so long and covering such a vast period of time, so many different themes and topics are discussed and it would be impossible to cover them all in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, I’m drawn to the feminist themes through the book.
I think that having a female main character/ hero is going to just naturally have some girl-power moments but this one had some overarching themes about how women are keeping the family (the world?) together.
In her own family, Francie’s mother is unable to rely on her husband to help keep the family financially secure. She takes on a job as housecleaner of the new apartment building where they move to in exchange for lodging for the family. She comes up with creative ways to get the children the things that they need—from trading house cleaning for piano lessons to coming up with creative games to play when they’re low on food in the house. She does all she can to maintain the children’s innocence even in some terribly dark times.
Francie also has two aunts—one of whom has carried 10 babies to full term, just to burry them just a few hours later when we meet her, though she never gives up her dream of having a child. Her other aunt has to step up when her husband is unable to work and she becomes the first female dairy delivery driver in Brooklyn. Her grandmother is full of wit and wisdom and teaches her daughters the art of saving money by nailing a version of a piggy bank to the floor in the closet so you can’t get to the money unless you absolutely need to. Francie sees these women and is proud to be in their lineage and she even carries on the legacy of self-sufficiency in so many ways.
“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel.”
I recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to everyone I come across. There’s just so much in it—so much covered. Through out most of the book I kept thinking about how I wanted to mail it to my niece who is going into the seventh grade in the fall. There is, however, one small but powerful incident involving a sexual predator that keeps me from poping it in the mail right away. The whole incident is maybe 1/2 a page out of over four hundred but still. Maybe in a few years when she’s going into high school I’ll feel better about it. But, who knows, maybe kids can deal with more than I can. Lord knows that Francie Nolan could. She was so strong and brave. I, on the other hand, know that I’ve grown a lot more sensitive in my older years.
Next month our Virtual Book Club will be reading Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty. We wanted a fun, summertime read and this looks like it just might be a good choice! I’ve loved every Moriarty book I’ve read. I feel like she’s really good at making the most mundane parts of life dramatic and important.
Our book club “meets” in a Facebook Event at the end of the month where we get together and talk about books. If you want to be added to our group comment or message me on Facebook and I’ll get you in there! Also, a few of us write blog posts like this one, though it’s certainly not required for membership. Go check out Staci’s review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I want to hear all about what you thought of it.