“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith is a book that I was given the first time by my mom. She handed me a copy and told me to read it. I was appreciative of the gesture, but thought at the time mom didn’t know anything about what I enjoyed reading. (I’ve since learned differently). So it stayed on my shelf for a little while. Eventually I decided to pick it up and discovered a wonderful coming-of-age tale where the main character could very well be me in another life. I’ve always felt parallels with Francie Nolan when reading this book but never have focused on it as much as I did this time while reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for the umpteenth time. What I found surprised me.
This novel revolves around Francie Nolan, a lonely little girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900’s. The story begins in 1912 and closely follows Francie’s life as she grows up. There are also flashbacks to different members of her family so that the reader can learn about how Johnny and Katie (her parents) fell in love and understand which parts of each member of her family Francie has inherited. There are many things that I enjoy throughout this novel, but I especially admire Katie, Francie’s mom, and how hard she works to make sure her kids have better than she did. Despite all the hardships that her family has to endure, Katie holds everything together. I feel like my mom is similar to Katie. Luckily for us, she never had to deal with a drunk who couldn’t support the family—quite the opposite actually. I really couldn’t have asked for better parents. But my mom always had a way of making everything ok. This is something that Katie demonstrates throughout the novel. She tells it like it is with her kids and doesn’t shy away from the truths of the world. This is especially true when she realizes that the only hope she has for surviving is learning to do so herself. And so she does.
As for Francie being a parallel character to myself, this is something that I see throughout the novel. It is apparent in her hobbies, her likes and dislikes, and even her attitude and demeanor. One of the biggest similarities I find is that Francie is a reader and an avid one at that. She reacts the same way that I do to books. “When she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked. As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed.” (ATGB, loc 563 – kindle edition). I feel like this quote reflects how I feel about books. Reading and writing is strongly encouraged throughout the novel and not just by Francie. When Katie has her kids she is begging her mother for advice. She says in reply, “The secret lies in the reading and the writing.” (ATGB, loc 1445 – kindle edition). This is something that has always been pushed on me when I was a child. My education was a very important thing to my parents and now that I’m old enough to appreciate it, I understand just how very right they were. Even if it seemed like they were just being mean making me do my homework.
The way that Francie feels when she learns how to read just completely captures the wonderfulness of learning this ability. “She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could 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…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.” (ATGB, loc 2730 – kindle edition). I personally cannot remember a time when I didn’t know how to read because I’ve been doing it for so long. But I do remember once making a similar vow about reading a book a day. Honestly, it just isn’t realistic if you have anything to do. Even then, now that I’m at the reading level that I’m at I choose books that simply cannot be finished in a day. I read Stephen King’s “The Stand” which was roughly 1500 pages. I was recently given a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand which is a very long book in itself. A book a day just isn’t feasible, but if I had nothing else to do with my time, I would certainly try. As is, I tend to get through about four books a month which is more than most people I know. This is in large part to the fact that I commute to work via train and therefore can read for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. I was given the gift of time when I got this job and I use it to my full advantage.
When it comes to preferences in food, I very much enjoy the fact that pickles are popular with Francie because I certainly cannot get enough. This quote reminds me of when my mom would indulge my desire for a ‘big pickle’ and I’d get to pick one out of the barrel. “There were times though, especially towards the end of a long cold dark winter, when, no matter how hungry Francie was, nothing tasted good. That was big pickle time.” (ATGB, loc 855 – kindle edition).
Another similarity between Francie and yours truly is the extreme naivety of her during her childhood. When I was younger I was convinced that my mom had written the song “Zippity Do Da” and that Disney stole it from her. Francie displays her own naivety many times in the book but one of my favorites was when she decided that she wanted to be a teacher’s pet, “She vowed that when she was old enough to go to school, that she would meow, bark and chirp as best she could so that she would be a “pet” and get to clap the erasers together.” (ATGB, loc 2156 – kindle edition). Francie had many ideas about school and she was very excited at the prospect of the whole situation but what she was really looking forward to was school supplies. She describes them with such admiration that I can relate to because that is exactly the kind of weirdo that I am as well. Now that I’m older, I refer to them as ‘office supplies’ but the same principle is there.
As I’ve mentioned before, Katie is Francie’s mother and they have many interesting conversations. One that stood out to me was them discussing friends: “’Haven’t you any girl friends to talk to, Francie?’ ‘No. I hate women.’ ‘That’s not natural. It would do you good to talk things over with girls your own age.’ ‘Have you any women friends, Mama?’ ‘No, I hate women,’ said Katie.” Part of why I like this quote so much is because I feel exactly the same way. I may have a few women friends, but I have more male friends than anything else and the reason is the same.
Although I enjoyed looking through the book for similarities between Francie and myself, I did find a few quotes that I just thought were both a good reflection on the type of book this is and insightful as well. Quotes that I believe would help convince others to read this book. The first one is, “’Why should I want to cheat you, Mrs. Nolan?’ he asked plaintively as he put the money away carefully. ‘Why should anyone want to cheat anybody?’ she asked in return. ‘But they do.’” (ATGB, loc 4716 – kindle edition). The next quote is a good example of how entertaining Betty Smith’s writing is, “Everything, decided Francie after that first lecture, was vibrant with life and there was no death in chemistry. She was puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion.” (ATGB, loc 7245 – kindle edition).
If it isn’t already apparent, I would highly recommend this book to almost anyone. I think it is an especially good book for young girls who enjoy reading, but I enjoy it as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid. It is by no means a book written exclusively for kids, but rather is an adult novel that is highly accessible. The book is filled with so much and is just so well written that I fall in love with it over and over every time I read it. One new thing that I discovered when reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” this time is that there are MORE BOOKS!!! Betty Smith has three more books written that I didn’t even know about. I’m very excited and determined to track them down.