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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is one of those books I'd heard of but it hadn't really registered, if you know what I mean. And then, some months ago, I saw it reviewed on a blog I just happened to come across by accident. I read the review and decided then and there to get the book as it sounded like something I might enjoy.

The story concerns the Nolan family who live in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, around the beginning of the 20th. century. There's the mother and father, Katie and Johnny and two children, Francie the eldest, and Neeley, her brother. The family is particularly poor in an already poor neighbourhood and the chief reason for that is the father of the household. Johnny, of Irish stock, drinks too much. He can't hold down a proper job but earns what he can as a singing waiter. Katie, the mother is basically supporting the family by cleaning other people's houses.

The main character in the book is really Francie. She's intelligent, bookish and wants to be a writer. All the odds are stacked against her. After we learn this the story then goes back in time and we learn the history behind the Nolan's marriage. We meet Katie's family, who are of Austrian stock - her mother, Mary, her cruel father, and two sisters, Sissy and Evy. Sissy loves the men and although loved within the family is also thought of as 'bad' by them. She is desperate for children and, of all the family, is doted on by Francie. Francie is also extremely close to her brother, Neeley, despite the fact that she knows her mother loves him more than her. It also has to be said that though the father, Johnny, is a wastrel he is also a loving father to Francie. In other words, despite being the poorest of the poor, Francie is surrounded by people who love her.

This is not a book to be hurried - I've actually been reading it over the past four or five weeks. The book meanders back and forth, through the years, as Francie and Neeley grow up and things slowly change for the family. It was quite a shocker in some respects, the struggle to put food on the table was ever present and it's very sad when you realise the mother is claiming to be 'not hungry' at meal times so that the children can have more. You want to strangle the father but it's just that he's the kind of man who can't handle responsibility and who should never have married in the first place. And Katie did set out to get him so in a way she only had herself to blame for the circumstances she found herself in. As Francie reflects much later in the book, it's the children who pay in the end, being sent out to work far too early and constantly having to struggle and compromise to make up for their parent's shortcomings or mistakes.

I gather this book is thought of as an American classic and if it weren't I would probably be asking 'why not?' It's sad - even tragic at times - but it's also a tale about how, if you're young and work hard and have your health, you can lift yourself up out of the most extreme poverty. I absolutely loved it to bits.


An old favourite -- and I really recommend her Joy in the Morning if it's available.
Yes, it is still available and I ummed and ahhed over getting it, not knowing what it was like. I've now added it to my 'to get' list.
Strangely enough, I've never read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, outside of an excerpt regarding how the children obtain a Christmas tree, although I've seen the 1940's-era film many times, and read a little of the lore behind the book: The tree in the title is said to be ailanthus altissima, or Chinese sumac, and it will grow nearly anywhere. Betty Smith supposedly insisted strongly that the artwork on the dust-jacket should depict exactly that specific tree. I imagine the artist wanted something a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

Sitting here thinking about it, I can remember the smell of those trees vividly: oily and acrid, a little bit like wet dog with just a hint of skunk thrown in. They are fairly obnoxious (the female trees are mild compared to the odor of the male trees!), but on a hot summer's day, they provide welcome shade in areas where other trees sicken and die.

I think I need to put that book on my TBR list...
Ah, I didn't realise that the 'tree' is a sumac tree. Makes sense but I think I was thinking of it as a plane tree... which is quite silly because that's 'London' not 'New York'. Thanks for straightening that out. I know they're real thugs. My daughter's neighbour has one that sends its suckers into her garden through a brick-wall would you believe??? But they do look quite pretty in the autumn.

Yes, do put the book on your TBR list, it's well worth it.
I'm so glad you read this and loved it. For many years, it was my "all-time favorite book", and now it's competing with Smith's other book Joy in the Morning for that title. Seconding the recommendation for Joy.... :)
That's two votes for Joy in the Morning so I'll definitely add that to my next Amazon list. Thanks for the rec!

Edited at 2008-08-13 08:19 am (UTC)