Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I've had a particularly good run lately of really great books--books that it seems everybody but me had read and loved--and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the latest in the string of winners.

While I've heard of this book for years, I didn't seriously consider reading it until I went to one of Erin Blakemore's events in Boulder promoting her wonderful book of essays The Heroine's Bookshelf, and heard her talk so passionately about how much she loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and what it's meant in her life to reread it time and again. Since I resonated so strongly with so many of Blakemore's heroines, I figured I better give Francie Nolan, the heroine from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a chance.

A business trip two weeks ago, and really boring in-flight movies for the two four-hour plane rides, enabled me quality time with the book, and I loved it. When I got back home, I couldn't read anything else until I finished it.

For those who, like me, who never met Francie during their adolescence, the book is a novel based roughly on the life of Betty Smith and recounts a life of poverty, hardship, faith, hope and love in the Brooklyn tenements of the early twentieth century. Francie's father is an Irish singing/waitor who drinks himself to an early grave but teaches his daughter about love and loyalty, the power of dreams, and the power of music. Her mother is hardworking, practical, and teaches her how to survive, how to hold her head up, and how to fight for what matters to her.

There is much in the story that is tough to read--it is gritty and often sad, but never dull and often inspiring. It was fascinating to read about the world of pre-WWI Brooklyn, where kids gather junk to sell for a penny or two of spending money and they have to shop for food and haggle with shopkeepers because their parents are working. The life of the average child, the average family one hundred years ago was so much harder, more precarious, and more dangerous than the life of the average child/family today, and this book drove that home in so many ways.

One of the reasons that so many of us life-long readers relate to Francie so strongly is that she is a reader as well. Early in life, she discovered that reading can help to heal a wounded soul and can fuel ambition, satisfy restlessness, open doors to opportunities, and offer companionship when loneliness strikes.

Well-written, easy to read, it's easy to see why this book is so beloved and why Francie Nolan is a heroine on the same plane as Laura Ingalls and Anne Shirley. It was interesting, however, to read this book for the first time as an adult. When I read Blakemore's essay on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in her The Heroine's Bookshelf, I was surprised by how harshly she viewed Francie's mother, Katie, talking about Katie's stated preference for Francie's younger brother, Neeley, and her insistence that Francie quit school to go to work to help support the family. While these things are true about Katie, as a mother, I can't help but admire the steeliness of Katie who teaches her children how to survive and thrive.

Katie transforms her maternal instincts into energy that puts food on the table, keeps a roof over the children's heads, instills them with a religious faith, and educates them.

As much as I want to love Francie as a heroine, to me, Katie is the real heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I've been looking for a movie adaptation. The most readily available is the Elia Kazan version from 1945, just two years after the book was published, and which won numerous Oscars. There was a 1974 made-for-TV version that used the same screenplay, but I think I'll go for the older movie.


  1. Now I'm going to have to reread my chapter to see how I talked about Katie, because I do view her as a heroine in her own right! I think the impossibility and complexity of the relationship between Francie and Katie is as fine as I've ever seen written about mothers and daughters, and I'm so glad you had a chance to read and love the book.

  2. Thanks for your review Jane! I've heard of this book over the years as well and your words inspire me to give it a shot!

  3. I read this book as a teenager but it seems to be time for a reread! I know I loved it, but the only part I really remembered was about the father and his love of music (other than the unrelenting poverty they suffered). I can't remember any more details so I guess I'd better get me a copy of this book!

  4. I never knew about this book, thanks for sharing this review. This book is great inspiration for me.

  5. AnonymousJune 29, 2011

    I love this book! I only just recently read it myself. Then, I watched this really old black and white movie based off of it, and cried so hard.