When I worked at Barnes & Noble, I had to give directions…a lot. “Walk past Teen Paranormal Romance, pass the puzzles and turn right at the New Arrivals table…” you know what I mean. One thing I used for reference for the magazine display was the poster of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. After saying the title so much, I started to wonder about the book…I figured it had to be good if it made it onto the wall! And since I’ve been feeling a little worn out on new fiction (could you tell from my last few choices?), I decided to expand my reading with this classic. What I found upon completing Betty Smith’s novel was a compelling coming of age tale of a girl I could relate to, Francie.
Francie is eleven was when the book begins, a tender age for the sadness that surrounds her in the early 1900’s. Though the boundaries of her world are small, Francie sees the devastation of poverty first hand as she scavenges the streets with her brother Neeley. Luxury takes the form of pouring precious drinks down the sink drain, but only on special days, like Sunday. Every penny is earned and saved, and bread is most often eaten hard. With a mother who works more than her fair share and a father whose charm exceeds his work ethic, Francie and Neeley grow up hearing about the importance of education from their lesser educated elders. The two siblings battle the need to learn versus the necessity of money. As times grow more difficult and familial relationships are strained, the Nolan children see what it is to struggle and eventually thrive.
More than anything, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a novel about a human’s ability to survive. Mothers must toughen their skin and the skin of their children in hopes of preventing years of disappointment. Fathers seek camaraderie with their fellow-men, paining themselves with the burdens of life and exchanging their sorrows for an easier-to-deal-with buzz. Children stick to themselves and often live in their imaginations, lessening the hurt and hunger. However, much like the tree of the title, the human spirit can withstand the insults, the jeering, and even attacks it encounters. Francie and Neeley are proof that where you come from does not dictate where you are going if you have perseverance and faith.
Now you may be wondering how I found this Francie Nolan relatable. I obviously did not grow up amidst poverty. And I certainly have never lived in Brooklyn. It is Francie’s observation and story-telling that reminds me of little Dana. Her favorite things are the library and the bowl of flowers on the counter. She sees the world around her and writes it down to always remember. And the way Francie makes deals with God, giving something up for her prayers to come true…I couldn’t help but see a little of me in her character.
I wouldn’t say I loved this book. But I can say I appreciated it. It covered so many life topics that you couldn’t write it off as an easy read. I enjoyed how the last chapter wrapped up the novel, allowing Francie to revisit her childhood in a way many of us might do. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smithdoes not proclaim its greatness, but solemnly states its importance…which definitely makes it a solid novel to add to one’s repertoire.
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