With summer around the corner, I think it’s time to dig into one of those classics you’ve always been meaning to get to, but never seem to have the time. One of my favorite classic novels is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I read for the first time when I was in high school (voluntarily) and it’s been a book that I’ve revisited a few times since then.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in the slums of Willamsburg. The novel opens during the summer of 1912, when Francie is 11 years old. She spends her time collecting junk for pennies with her younger brother, Neeley, and reading library books on her fire escape. Her mother cleans apartment buildings and, when he’s not drunk, her father waits tables. Most of the time the family struggles to make ends meet. To talk any more of the plot would be misleading. This isn’t a novel concerned with what’s happening. Don’t misunderstand me, things do happen in this novel, but it’s more appropriate to describe it as a collection of small moments. You get to follow Francie at almost a day-to-day basis, seeing the world through her perspective. The novel’s unhurried pace allows us to really connect with Francie, sharing in her joys, passions, fears, and shames.
The book spans approximately 18 years, including a year before Francie was born. During this part of the novel, you get an opportunity to learn more about Francie’s parents: Katie and Johnny (and to a certain extent, their parents). I find this one of the stronger sections, because it gives you a sense of the Nolans’ family history. This, in turn, offers more context to ground Francie’s story.
Personally, I find Katie Nolan an admirable character. She is the breadwinner, spending long, tiring days scrubbing floors. Sometimes it seems like her strength is the only thing holding her family together. Yet even when money is at its most scarce, she doesn’t let it detract from the small joys in life. When Francie’s aunt criticizes her for throwing away coffee, Katie responds:
Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away rather than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.
Katie only wants the best for her family – for her children to have the opportunity achieve more than she has. Francie sees a good education as her chance to better herself. Katie struggles to provide the funds and even then, there’s only enough to send either her or her brother – not both. Katie makes the difficult decision to send Neeley, even though he doesn’t want to return to school. She reasons to a heartbroken Francie, “Because if I don’t make him, he’ll never go back, where you Francie, will fight and manage to get back somehow.” And that’s truly what makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn worth reading, to join this determined young girl through her life. Reading this book is like becoming a part of Francie’s family. You may even feel a little homesick when you finish.