A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith, 1943

Note: Some spoiler-ish stuff follows.  Also, I'm not going to talk about the tree.  It's a great symbol, but I'd just be restating others' commentary.

When I started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I knew it was a coming of age story set in New York in the early 1900's. I didn't know that it is also a book about the American Dream, in the most classic sense. Francie is the grandchild of immigrants, and her parents are insistent that each generation will, must, have more than the last.

Also, unlike the other girls books I've been reading and enjoying, this is modern literature, published in 1943. This gives it a separate tone, and it's probably the best written of the bunch by any literary standard.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn doesn't try to romanticize the poverty of living in the then-slum of Williamsburg in the early 1900's, but it rides that line well. By that I mean that it doesn't paint a picture of unremitting bleakness (we are able to share in the small pleasures the characters have), but is still clear on how badly off they are. Francie, for her part, is opinionated and stubborn in the best ways, and wisely observes the world around her.

One late scene I found particularly effective is when Francie's teacher objects to her writing, when she begin to write about her real life. Francie's internal objections to her teacher's well-meaning but completely class-blinded arguments read, well, kind of like my objection to the depiction of "poverty" in Little Women.

"Now I'm not a snob," stated Miss Gardner. "I do not come from a wealthy family. My father was a minister with a very small salary."
(But it was a salary, Miss Gardner.)
"And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country."
(I see. You were poor, Miss Gardner, poor with a maid.)
....
My father had to send me to a small denominational college."
(But admit you had no trouble going to college.)

The reality of the life is extremely vivid, the characters strongly drawn.

It also dwells on the simplicity of aspects of their life. The kids sell scrap tin foil for penny candy money, and it is relatively easy for Francie and her father to forge documents allowing her to go to a better school, and for both her and her brother to lie about their ages to get work. This stands as a interesting contrast to our current germ-phobic and heavily documented childhood.

Part of why this book is timeless (despite, or because, it is so completely grounded in its period) is its very modern thesis: Poor people are people, and everyone deserves access to a good education and modern life.

The book consistently promotes education explicitly, as well as other new technology implicitly. Francie's Aunt Sissy has had many stillborn babies, until finally she insists on going to a doctor for a birth. (Her family thinks she's crazy.) When the child is born, she looks at it and thinks that it is dead. The doctor, however, gives it oxygen, and the child is fine. It's not stated that Sissy realizes what this means about her previous births, but the reader can connect the dots.

The final aspect I want to touch on is the style of the telling of the parents' stories. Francie is the main protagonist, but plenty of time (more than I expected) is given to developing her parents and everyone in her world. Her parents' lives are described after Francie has been established.  Liberal foreshadowing is used while telling the stories of Francie's grandparents and how they shaped the lives of her parents. This gives me the heavy sense that her parent's lives are, to some extent, predestined. They are each the end point of their families, have the traits of their culture and their line, both merits and faults.

Francie is the synthesis. She has elements of both her parents, but she is unique, 'American', not one culture or another, her position in time is the present, her life is happening now as it is read, and so she is free to create her own destiny. 

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

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