Author: Betty Smith
Original Publisher: Harper & Brothers 1943
Genre: Classic/Historical Fiction
One of the book clubs I belong to has members who are all over the age of 65 and have widely diverse backgrounds. I’ve found them to be avid readers of, primarily, literary fiction both contemporary and historical.
We were in agreement that we wanted to read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. For most of us this was a re-read. When we met this last week I discovered that every single person in the club loved this book. Believe me, that is quite rare. I love this club because there are so many viewpoints that it makes our discussions so interesting. Even though we all liked the book, we still had plenty to talk about.
Characters truly made this book a winner. First there is Francie. Everyone agreed Francie Nolan was an excellent character to build the story around. As the story begins, eleven-year-old Francie is sitting on the fire-escape of her Brooklyn tenement in 1912. We soon meet Francie’s brother, Neeley, her mother, Katie, and then her father, Johnny. As expected, they all play pivotal roles in Francie’s life.
And then there are Francie’s three aunts, her mother’s sisters. One in particular, Aunt Sissy, we really loved. Sissy had a heart of gold, but she was also a complex woman: illiterate, beautiful, with three marriages and many lovers. Sissy named them all John. Sissy also had what we now call street smarts. That and her own code of ethics made her a memorable character.
Although she plays a small part, another memorable character for me was Katie’s mother, an immigrant from Austria. She gave Katie some sage advice that helped the family. First, she advised Katie to nail a can to the closet floor and continuously feed it money. Secondly, she advised Katie to read chapters from the Bible and Shakespeare every single day to her children. And thirdly, she advised them to buy a piece of property no matter how small.
The person that Francie loved the most was her father, although we couldn’t figure out exactly why. Johnny was not a reliable wage-earner as he had a serious alcohol problem. He primarily worked as a singing waiter out of the union hall. The work was hit and miss so his wife, Katie had to work hard as the main breadwinner.
There are so many paths taken as Francie comes of age during this novel. Fortunately for Francie, she loved the library and loved to read. There weren’t a lot of role models for her to follow, but she had a wonderful and loving support system.
Every member of the book club was poled for criticisms of the novel. No one could think of one. This was my third time reading the book and I tried hard to be critical. I couldn’t. Maybe its the nostalgia the novel evokes. I don’t know. I do know I can recommend A Tree Grows In Brooklyn without reservation.
The title of the book serves as a metaphor for the story. A tree know as the Tree of Heaven was quite prolific in that area of Brooklyn. People tried all sorts of ways to kill the tree, but it would just keep on growing and, in fact, sprout new trees. Immigrant families were often the same. The Nolan family survived numerous setbacks and challenges that could have stopped them, but they persevered and eventually thrived. This is a story many Americans can identify with.