Monday, August 18, 2014

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I just finished re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I think I first read when I was around 12.

It totally holds up.

It is a poignant (sentimental toward the end) coming of age story set in tenement Brooklyn during the early years of the 20th Century. The descriptions of the poverty in Williamsburg are precisely detailed throughout. Money, in pennies and nickels and single dollars, figures prominently on each page, as getting by day-to-day is a constant struggle for survival.

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens when Francie is 11 years old, selling junk with her brother, Neely, and ends when she is 17. The novel chronicles the lives of all her family members -- her parents Katie and Johnny, her aunts Sissy and Eve, as well as Francie and her brother, throughout these years.

Re-reading it decades later, I was struck by how many scenes I could remember, that made such an impression on me. Francie buying a bone for the dinner of soup, her father lying about her address to get her into a better school, her mother's refusal to ever accept charity, the tragic death in the family...

What Smith captures so beautifully is the way the world, or parts of it, can be magical for a child, even when surrounded by so much ugliness and suffering. For instance, young Francie is awed each week by the fresh flower always in the bowl at the library counter -- even as the librarian ignores her throughout her childhood. During the second half of the book Francie outgrows her sense of wonder, and looks back on it nostalgically as she enters her teens and is more painfully aware of her family's squalor.

It's really a wonderful book, which I think everyone should read. Very engaging, deeply moving. I cried through the entire last half of it.

I read it on my Kindle this time around, but pictured is the copy I read as a kid, which I've held on to all these years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very moving review--although I avoid stories of that nature--I remember mama et al--perhaps I missed something here--well done!