A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

In a strange way, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been part of my life as long as I can remember. It’s good that I actually got around to reading it. Of course, I should probably explain that.

(Just as a preliminary note, you’ll notice that I went two weeks in a row. Kim and I decided to switch things up. Kim will take the next two weeks.)

I’ve been consciously aware of this book since I was at least three or four, but I knew little more than the title. In fact, I’d formed an impression about what the book would be and didn’t seem to feel the need to read it, despite that impression being totally wrong. Truth be told, I blame Bugs Bunny.

You all remember, I’m sure, A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Like most of the canonical Looney Tunes classics, this cartoon played endlessly (other than the extremely racist ones, as opposed to the more incidentally racist ones, that somehow managed to get dropped as time went on). I must have seen it hundreds of times. Click on the link about and I’m sure you’ll remember.

Anyway, at the climactic scene in the cartoon (as Bugs relates the story of his youth), Bugs is surrounded in an alley by a group of dogs that intend to do him in. He grabs a book with which to fend them off. Suddenly, the dogs all turn and run…heading off over the bridge to Brooklyn. Bugs looks at the book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That was my experience, a pee joke.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jennifer Weiner.)

So, finally, I decided to actually read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Instead of a pee joke (though I did keep hearing Bugs singing The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady as I read), we have the story of a young girl (Francie Nolan) growing up in an impoverished section of Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. Her father is a drunk (though she loves him), her overworked mother loves her brother better (though her mother loves her as well), and she knows little other than want. However, Francie flowers with the sort of hope that is the right of every child:

            Francie held the books close and hurried home, resisting the temptation to sit on the first stoop she came to, to start reading.

            Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time. She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars. Luckily there was ice in the icebox. She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water. The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color. She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out of the fire-escape. Once out there, she was living in a tree. No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her. But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.

            It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the tree made fugitive patterns on the white pillowcase. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually it was preempted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbings and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a birthday present.

The main thrust of the story is Francie realizing things about herself and her world as she gets older. She realizes that her father is a hopeless drunk. She discovers the cruelty of others, the hatred teachers can have for children and how the children can turn that hatred upon each other instead of banding together. She puzzles over the differences between morality and goodness.  In short, we follow Francie as she painfully grows up:

            After the exercises, the turkey foot and corn were thrown into the wastebasket. Teacher set aside the apples to take home. She asked if anyone wanted the little pumpkin pie. Thirty mouths watered; thirty hands itched to go up into the air but no one moved. Some were poor, many were hungry and all were too proud to accept charitable food. When no one responded, Teacher ordered the pie thrown away.

            Francie couldn’t stand it; that beautiful pie thrown away and she had never tasted pumpkin pie. To her it was the food of covered wagon people, of Indian fighters. She was dying to taste it. In a flash she invented a lie and up went her hand.

            “I’m glad someone wants it,” said Teacher.

            “I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

            *****

            Francie ate the pie while walking home that afternoon. Whether it was her conscience or the unfamiliar flavor, she didn’t enjoy the pie. It tasted like soap. The Monday following, Teacher saw her in the hall before class and asked her how the poor family had enjoyed the pie.

            *****

            “Oh, very poor. The didn’t have anything to eat for three days and just would have died, the doctor said, if I didn’t bring them that pie.”

            “That was such a tiny pie,” commented Teacher gently, “to save two lives.”

            Francie knew then that she had gone too far. She hated whatever that thing was inside her that made her invent such whoppers. Teacher bent down and put her arms around Francie. Francie saw that there were tears in her eyes. Francie went to pieces and remorse rose in her like bitter flood waters.

            “That’s all a big lie,” she confessed. “I ate the pie myself.”

            “I know you did.”

This is where I found this book to be the most magical: the way that I felt about Francie’s journey. Francie and her world are painted with amazing vividness, but (even beyond The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady) I couldn’t help but think of things while I thought about Francie. Not everyone grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, but everyone who survives to become an adult has been a child. Whoever they are, they remember learning how cruel other children can be. They knew the pain of learning that their parents are fallible. They felt the shame of finding out that others look down on them. They realized that good people die.

Francie has a very particular set of experiences, but those experiences remind the reader of similar moments that happened to them. At least, this is what happened to me. I cannot help but think that this is what happens to other people as well. Walking with Francie, we recall the sweet but traumatic moments when we changed from being a child.

            Growing up spoiled a lot of things. It spoiled the nice game they had when there was nothing to eat in the house. When money gave out and food ran low, Katie and the children pretended they were explorers discovering the North Pole and had been trapped by a blizzard in a save with just a little food. They had to make it last till help came. Mama divided up what good there was in the cupboard and called it rations when the children were still hungry after a mean, she’d say, “Courage, my men, help will come soon.” When some money came in and Mama bought a lot of groceries, she bought a little cake as a celebration, and she’d stick a penny flag in it and say, “We made it, men. We got to the North Pole.”

            One day after one of those “rescues” Francie asked Mama:

            “When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason. Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?”

            Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, “You found the catch in it.”

I really can’t grasp why somebody didn’t recommend this book to me sooner. People recommend me a lot of books, but no one even mentioned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My MFA thesis focused on child voice and no one brought this book up…and they really should have. I can only shake my head and wonder.

Really, I think this should have been one of the books that we were made to read in school. The stark beauty of Francie’s growing knowledge of the world, the way that readers can see their own youth reflected in her experiences, it really is a book that everyone should read. But, I know few that have. Of those few, I only learned that they had because they were excited when I started reading.

Regardless, I’m going to have to put this on my list of books I consider to be the most beautiful I’ve ever run across. What else can I say? It really is that good. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is right up there for me with The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Steppenwolf. It haunts me…and everyone deserves to be haunted like this.

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One response to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

  1. Pingback: Les Miserables is Long Long Long. Today I will talk about Bones Buried in Dirt. | Eleven and a Half Years of Books

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