A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This remarkable novel, by Betty Smith, was published in 1943, smack in the middle of the Second World War. I envision young soldiers flying through the pages in their bunks (or elsewhere) and finding great strength and comfort from the beautiful narrative penned by Betty Smith. Now, as I write this review, our country is in the midst of a very different, unpredictable war…it is April 2020 and many are alone, isolated or at least socially distanced from others. The context of my reading of this book, thus heightened the impact of the powerful story of the coming of age of Francie Nolan. I am comforted and strengthened by Smith’s crafting of this magnificently impacting simple story of tenacious grit and unyielding character.

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.” Katie Nolan, Francie’s mother states with prophetic wisdom.

Katie’s mother beautifully passes on her understanding, “In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”…much like the tree in Brooklyn.

It seems that Francie is this strong, resiliant tree; a subtle metaphor that creates an arching arbor covering the unfolding storyline. We meet Francie as she is reading a book on the third floor fire escape of the Brooklyn tenement which is her home. Francie has determined to read a book a day, chosen in alphabetical order, until she has read every book in the shabby library where her self-driven education took root, in spite of an uninspired, impersonal librarian.

“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words.”

We certainly see the unfolding of that magic in Francie as she interprets life as she sees through the lenses of all the books she has read.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

The author artistically paints her characters using detailed accounts of their thought processing, especially those of Francie Nolan. Through the deep waters of her thoughts, we see a child who has been given a love and appreciation for all of life. Her wise mother teaches her children to value what is written by reading each day from the works of Shakespeare and also from the Bible. She committed to do this everyday for her children because her own wise mother, who could not read, told her it was the most important thing she could do for them.

Mary Rommely, Francie’s grandmother said, ‘That is the book, then, and the book of Shakespeare. And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.” “The Protestant Bible and Shakespeare.”

And on developing the imagination of a child, the grandmother explains to her daughter,
“ And you must tell the child the legends I told you–as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of the people…”

Francie’s young, handsome, talented father, Johnny Nolan, loves life with zeal but values drink above virtue. His family suffers immeasurably from his neglect and irresponsibility but they choose to admire what is redemptive in his character and his virtues are passed on to them in spite of his glaring flaws.

“Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk”

What a beautiful book! Yes, this is a must read!