This 1943 novel is now among my favorites that I’ve read this year. It was selected as the “summer read” for a Great Books Foundation discussion group in which I participate. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend that meeting, but I will share a few thoughts here at Bibliophilopolis.
The book is the story of a young girl named Francie Nolan. She is daughter to Katie and Johnny, sister to Neeley (short for Cornelius) and niece to Sissy and Evy, and granddaughter to Mary Rommely, the matriarch of a family of Austrian immigrants that includes many remarkable women, of which Francie is (or is becoming) one.
The Nolan family is Irish and, perhaps stereotypically, Johnny is an alcoholic. The family survives through a tenaciousness that Katie embodies and likely inherited from her mother. Katie is largely uneducated but realizes early that education is the key to escaping their poverty-stricken circumstances. In a favorite passage of the book, during a long talk, Katie asks her mother:
“Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”
“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day. This must be until the child learns to read. Then SHE must read every day. I know this is the secret.”
“I will read,” promised Katie. “What is a good book?”
“There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book; all that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that those stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing. But I heard The Lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.”
Later the family is able to acquire a used copy of “the complete works” for twenty-five cents. Smith’s description of this book reminded me very much of my first copy of Shakespeare, that I read about a third of the plays before it had fallen apart so much as to make holding it together difficult.
And what is the other great book Mary Rommely recommends? “The Bible that the Protestant people read,” she says. How they came by a copy of the Bible is another favorite part of the story for me. Katie’s sister, Sissy, is in a hotel with her man and asks him, “What is that book on the dresser?” He explains that its a bible and she tells him she’s going to “hook it” (steal it). He says that that’s why they put them there, so that people will read it, reform and repent and bring it back so that others may benefit. Sissy’s reaction, “Well, here’s one they’re not going to get back,” and so Katie’s modest library was complete…
The other thing that struck me about the book was the crushing poverty in which Francie’s family lived, scrimping and saving for just a penny here and a nickel there. The U.S. Government shutdown we’re currently experiencing reminded me of this a little. In one news story they were interviewing people who had been furloughed or otherwise affected by it. Listening, it seemed the hardship was too much to bear (and this was like on day 3 of the shutdown) and I remember thinking, “Do these people truly have nothing set aside at all to make it through any tough times and bumps in the road? Are so many people in this day and age really living literally hand to mouth?” That’s depressing, if true. Even Katie Rommely, with her pitiful little coffee can bank of pennies and nickels, would be better prepared than today’s spoiled and “entitled” masses, I think.
(Below: Author Betty Smith)
All in all, a great book, with many characters that I cared about. A tale of the triumph of will and resolve to overcome unfavorable circumstances.
(Below: I saw this photo on eBay – this is the same edition as my dilapidated old copy of Shakespeare’s works. Maybe I’ll add a picture of that one too when I get home - oh, the limitations of blogging on one’s lunch hour… - this one’s in much better shape than mine. )