Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is one of my favorite books, which inspired one of my favorite movies, and I was delighted to finally have the chance to read it again. It’s a wonderful coming of age story spanning the years 1912 to 1918 in the life of Francie Nolan, a girl of the Brooklyn tenements who loves to read and dreams of being a writer when she grows up.

When the story begins in the summer of 1912, Francie is ten years old and her brother Neely is nine. Their mother, Katie Nolan, is a pretty, practical, hard as nails woman of twenty-nine, who works as a scrubwoman to support her family, while her lovable husband, Johnny, a drunkard and pipe dreamer whose dreams never come true, can’t hold down a regular job, and takes work as a singing waiter whenever he can get it, using his tips to buy his liquor. Life has eroded any natural tendency to tenderness Katie ever had, and hardened her heart like the soda in the water she uses to scrub the floors has hardened her hands and left them raw and cracked, she has to make hard and often unpopular decisions while everybody loves and likes Johnny. Then there is her sister, Aunt Sissy (wonderfully portrayed by Joan Blondell in the movie) a big-hearted woman with a lackadaisical approach to marriage, divorce, and birth control, who can’t give birth to a living child.

This book paints a vivid picture of this family and what their life was like, and how a poor and lonely child with a love of books struggles to fit in and to hold on to her dreams, like school, which Francie loves, but almost loses after her father dies.

For those familiar with the movie, it follows the book very closely, only offering a broader scope, like introducing a few characters not featured in the movie and taking a look back at the happy days when Katie and Johnny first fell in love and married. But the movie stops with Francie at fifteen, the book goes further.

After Johnny’s death, of alcoholism and pneumonia, the reader gets to witness Francie’s grief, the birth of her baby sister, named Annie Laurie after a song Johnny used to sing, we get to watch her grow up, become a young woman, going to work in an artificial flower factory at fourteen, then at newspaper clipping service, enduring the first painful pangs of love, being hurt by a man’s lies, and preparing to go to college in 1918 after her mother has married Officer McShane who can make life easier for them all.

It’s a moving, sentimental and nostalgic “Sidewalks of New York” style book filled with characters who stick in your mind you can actually feel something for, whether good or bad or somewhere in between. But it’s not all sugar and spice nostalgia, it doesn't shrink from the ugliness and cruelty of life, it has it all in just the right measure and I think that’s one of the reasons people still love this book. Life is not a fairy tale and this story doesn't try to pretend it is, it doesn't promise a happily ever after, and when you reach the last page you’re left wondering what the rest of their lives were like. Sometimes I wish Betty Smith had written a sequel, even though part of me is glad she didn't since I always seem to regret reading sequels yet always feel compelled to if I liked the original book. 

Through the author’s words, we feel and see it all, the people and their problems, the dirt, poverty, hope and despair, we feel the hard knocks of life they experience, and it’s sweet, simple pleasures like penny candy and library books, candy canes and tangerines at Christmas, and fourth of July fireworks, Thanksgiving dinner with homemade noodles and pot roast, and Halloween hijinxs. We experience Francie’s first taste of pumpkin pie and the pretty china doll with golden curls and a fancy dress she won at charity Christmas party by telling what turned to be a white lie and her guilt over it. And the gentle encouragement of a teacher that changed her life when she told Francie to write down the lies instead of telling them, that way they become a story, “tell the truth and write the story.” Great advice and a great book that inspired a great movie, I urge everyone to try one or the other or, even better, both.

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