A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN
by Betty Smith
Harper Perennial, 2005
(first published 1943)
Paperback, 493 pages
In Brooklyn grows a singular type of tree that is able to flourish in the poorest of conditions, “the only tree that grew out of cement.” Under such a tree, at the turn of the century, grows a young girl named Francie. With an alcoholic, singing waiter father, a hardened but deeply caring mother, and a charming younger brother, Francie faces all the joys and hardships of growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn — from following musical performers through the streets to selling junk for penny candy, being picked on in school to reading in perfect solitude on a leafy fire escape, and the devastating loss of a loved one to the naive pangs of first love.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a really beautiful story of growing up, searching for meaning and truth despite the ugliness of hunger and heartbreak, and fighting the odds to make a better life for oneself.
I have so much admiration for Katie, Francie’s mother, who does everything she can to set her children up for a better life than she had. Upon the advice of her own mother (herself illiterate), Katie reads a page from both the Protestant Bible and William Shakespeare to her children each night, believing education to be the key to improving one’s station. In this vein, she also ensures her children stay in school beyond elementary school graduation, imbuing Francie with a thirst for knowledge and the tenacity to fight for her right to learn despite many obstacles of time, money, and responsibility.
I really love this theme of the importance of education and literacy. Katie’s mother tells her she must read Shakespeare to her children because she had “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 are living on those pages” and the Protestant Bible because she believes it “contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it” than the Catholic one. Stressing the importance of exposing her children to these books each day, she tells Katie, “You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great — knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.” This, to me, is the power of literature. Great books teach the reader about the world beyond his or her own small pocket of it, and I feel it is incredibly important for those born into poverty to be able to read and to realize not only that there is more to life than what they have known, but that a better life is within reach. Not only can reading show people that a higher quality of life is possible, but literacy provides some of the tools for achieving it.
This novel is absolutely beautiful, equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. Francie’s search for truth and beauty and meaning is so central to the human condition, her struggle to rise above her environment is incredibly inspiring, and her musings upon love and loss really struck a chord with me. This is a wonderful coming of age novel that weaves beautifully together all the glory and tragedy of growing up.
I’ll end with a really fantastic quote by Francie (just one of many), which demonstrates her lust for life with all its ups and downs:
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
What are your favorite bits of Francie wisdom? Do you have any other favorite coming-of-age novels?