A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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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)

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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. 🙂 )

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10 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    October 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Jay,
    I’ve heard this title for years, but had never had a clue as to what it was about. Thanks for the post – it sounds great. And your comparison to today’s times seems spot on.
    -Dale

    Like

  2. Dee said,

    October 7, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    Hi …. This was a favorite book of my mother’s … her mom arrived from Ireland age 18 about 1883. I love these beginnings – Leonard Bernstein’s father evidently arrived with almost nothing also …

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 7, 2013 at 6:55 pm

      Hi Dee,
      Well, your mother and Francie Nolan wouldn’t be THAT far off from being contemporaries; she likely identified somewhat with Francie. Did your grandmother teach her to read from Shakespeare and The Bible? 🙂
      -Jay

      Like

  3. Alex said,

    October 8, 2013 at 5:33 am

    I remember loving it at the time, but it’s been some years ago. For some reason it’s filled in my mind as a “Softer Angela’s Ashes”

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      I’ve never read that one. Checking a quick summary, I think I’ll stick to this kinder, gentler version… 🙂

      Like

  4. Richard Boyle said,

    October 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Jay, I’m glad you enjoyed the book but sorry you had to miss the September meeting of our discussion of it. It was a good evening and a fast 90 minutes. You might be interested in the fact that the section you quoted in your review about the value of reading, specifically Shakespear and the Bible was the first thing referred to in our session and was discussed at length as perhaps the most important excerpt in the entire book. Smith has created timeless characters which leapfrog stereotypes that they might easily have become and she has made the reader care deeply about what happens to them. A timeless classic.
    Best,

    Richard

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 9, 2013 at 6:54 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Richard. Katie began to seem more and more heroic to me as the novel progressed. One doesn’t always need “book learnin” to be able to see and choose the right path ahead. (It doesn’t hurt, though) 🙂

      There’s another line in the book almost included in my post. Something like, “You see? It is already beginning, the getting better.”

      See you next week for Saul Bellow. Lst night, I finally found an old short story anthology of mine that had Looking for Mr. Green in it. 🙂

      -Jay

      Like

  5. Melissa said,

    October 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I absolutely loved this one! I think Francie’s mother was a particular strong character.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 11, 2013 at 7:18 am

      Hi Melissa,
      I loved Katie. I think this book is one that I’ll be recommending to “all those people” who occasionally seek my advice on “what to read next”…
      -Jay

      Like


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