When my 12 year old granddaughter told me she was reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I could no longer put off rereading it! I had wanted to for so long, and it was just the perfect impetus. What a joy it is to read and talk about a book with her! Perhaps it will be one of her favorites too. I could not believe she also asked me about Rebecca, another of my favorites. If you live long enough, you get to enjoy so much!
Francie was born into a life of poverty, handed down to her from previous generations of immigrants who came to America for a better life but were ill-equipped to provide it for themselves. She lives in Brooklyn, in a section called Williamsburg where many new immigrants settled in the early 1900’s. Once there, many remained trapped, facing prejudice and its incipient discrimination, unable to leave and move up in the world. Largely uneducated, unable to read or write and unfamiliar with the new language, all they could do was provide minimally for their families and hope that their children, with an education, would do better than they, and in that way, each successive generation would improve their lot and provide for the rest of the family, which was the custom.
As an 11 year old, Francie had far more responsibility than pre-teens of today. No one organized play dates for her or even helped her with her homework. No one was able to do that but she, herself. So many chores awaited her each day, she had little time to play, yet Francie was a dreamer. She had ideas of a better life in her future. Francie loved to read and spent hours in the library devouring what books she could. She was working her way through them alphabetically and her goal was to read them all!
How different life was then! Without technology, everything was done by hand and all records were hard copies. Imagine that! Today we have microfiche, flash drives, digital books. Then they had the Dewey Decimal System and a librarian who was usually little more than a policeman; she was so overworked, she had little time to engage with the children. Yet, Francie loved the library, the stacks of books and the smell and feel of them. Books took her away from her dreary life and opened up her imagination so that she could dream. For Francie, happiness was alone time, reading her favorite books, listening to the sounds of night or gazing at the stars. She had no more than the simple things in life and yet, Francie was happy. She had her mind to develop and her life to live in her thoughts that carried her away to distant places.
Oh, the memories this book arouses in me, a native of Brooklyn, growing up several decades after Francie and yet having similar experiences and memories of the borough in which she was raised, familiar with the same streets, growing up to teach in the same area and walking, once again, on those remembered streets.
Francie is one of those special kind of people. She has tremendous insight into the world around her and more maturity than her years belie. She lives with such poverty and so much sadness that is hard to believe she will grow up whole, but her mom and her dad are loving, in spite of their shortcomings, his drinking and her mom’s naivete and basic ignorance. They do the best they can and although Johnny is robbed of his life by pneumonia, after he finally gives up drinking, they still manage to forge ahead and provide their basic needs with each one chipping in to help.
Francie understands women far better than any woman I have come across today. She understands that they can’t wait to join together and put a woman down because that elevates their own self. She understands the simply truisms of life, love and the pursuit of happiness. She never gives up even in the face of dreadful odds and certain defeat. She is always positive. Sometimes I think she is the role model I based my life on. Perseverance and hope were her watchwords. She always worked hard, gave 110% and therefore excelled. Francie keeps coming up with simple explanations for life’s hardest problems. She has a mind that goes directly to the problem, identifies its source and finds a simple solution. When she wonders about why women wear perfume, she comes to an uncomplicated answer…to attract men.
The novel is so current that is is startling since it was published in 1943! The same problems in the economy and the disharmony in the world at large, in addition to to the schadenfreude so prevalent today, are rearing their ugly heads. Betty Smith seems almost clairvoyant in her depiction of people and society then. It could be written today in almost the same way.
In the end, faith pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat, for the Nolan family.
I read that the tree is supposed to be a symbol of the tree to heaven, and yet, for me, I think it represents the tree of hope or the tree of life. Francie makes everything seem possible if one tries hard enough. She struggles and with each failure and triumph she grows like the tree.