Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Source of Book: I own this.

When I was a child, I often looked for books with an exciting or at least interesting plot. As I have aged, I have found myself drawn more toward books that spoke to me through their characters. The very best books cause me to identify strongly with at least one character, and result in several moments where I see something from a new or clearer perspective.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books.

I am usually a bit skeptical about books written in the early to mid 1900s, particularly those written by women. I blame early experiences with high school literature overviews for choosing the least interesting and most didactic works. I never liked Kate Chopin. I was disappointed by Edna Ferber, and so forth. I knew that this book was one that I should read for history’s sake, but did not imagine that it would be a deeply moving book to me.

I should give a little personal background. I grew up in a largely poor neighborhood (until age 16). My parents were “middle class” in terms of values and stability - we made sacrifices so my mother could stay home with us kids, and we lived below our means. Many, if not most, of our neighbors lived in true poverty. There were plenty with addictions to drugs or alcohol, many with unstable family structures, and others that were just living on the financial edge. Even my own parents went through a number of years where they didn’t always know where the next meal would come from. I don’t remember this, both because of my youth, and the fact that my parents kept the stress and worry from us. Nevertheless, I understand something of the dynamics of poverty from my youthful experiences, which made this book seem startlingly familiar to me.

While I was in the process of reading this book, I also had a conversation with a friend, who experienced the book first-hand in two ways. She grew up in poverty, but also lived the family dynamics which play a central role in the book.

Betty Smith based much of the book on her own experiences, which may well explain why her characters seem so real. I felt that I knew these people, even though the setting was 70 years before my own childhood. In particular, I recognized the emotions of her characters. I really was affected by this book in an emotional and visceral way for this reason.

The central character, Francie, is the oldest child of Johnnie and Katie Nolan, second generation immigrants living in Brooklyn. The book flashes back to fill in the back story or her parents and grandparents, but Francie is really the focus of the book. I have generally identified well with both male and female characters, so I found Francie to be familiar and similar to me in personality in a number of ways. (See below for more on this.)

Francie is a voracious reader, taking home one book to read for every day of her childhood from her eleventh year on. She starts at the beginning and attempts to read through the entire library alphabetically. Presumably her library was smaller than the ones I grew up with, however, as I expect I would still be stuck somewhere in “D” at my age. However, I have always been a voracious reader, and looked forward to our regular library trips with great anticipation. I also noted that Francie was a sickly child, like I was, and to a degree was likewise more of a burden than a joy to her mother, who latched on to the younger brother as a favorite. (Now that I have kids, I can’t imagine what I put my poor mother through.)

Katie is determined that her children will avoid the poverty she experienced, so she starts reading them the Bible and Shakespeare every day. This starts Francie, at least, on her career as an autodidact, although her brother never quite catches the love of learning.

Johnnie is talented, but he is never able to cope with life, and drowns his feelings in alcohol. This prevents him from supporting his family, and eventually kills him. Despite the hardship and the tragedy, however, this is an optimistic book.

Like another book I read relatively later in life, The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has as a major theme that of sex and desire. I think I understood it better than I would have, had I read it in my teens. There are some things that make better sense at thirty-five than at fifteen. I must say, like the characters, Smith’s emotional analysis felt at once familiar and profound.

At this point, a digression might be in order. If one is to give any weight to personality tests, I tend to score further to the feminine side than average for a man, and also further than my wife. I have experienced love and desire in certain ways more toward that side of the (statistical) emotional spectrum. I have always been oriented toward commitment and emotional bonding as a necessary prerequisite to physical bonding. I need touch and communication to be happy. That is why there were moments of recognition throughout this book. Smith’s perspective really struck a chord. Let me note a few of these.

One of the early incidents in this book described Katie’s sister Sissy, who had several husbands and innumerable boyfriends before finally settling down. Another (very minor) character was described as being unhealthily “starved” for men, while Sissy was “healthily hungry.” I think this brings out a crucial difference. I can certainly sense the difference between the two, and it is easy to see who will find some sort of satisfaction.

Sissy is also the subject of one of the best lines (from the perspective of a lawyer, at least). Her first, legal husband dies unexpectedly. Her second (sort of legal) husband asks for a divorce, since he has since remarried and had children in another state. Her “third” husband, who wasn’t aware of the previous marriages accuses her of tricking him into living in adultery. She responds, “We’re not living in adultery. We’re living in bigamy.”

I also found the section where the various women living in the tenement comment on the birth of a child with their own fears and experiences of painful childbirth a bit peculiar. Perhaps in our modern medical age, we have less anxiety about the birth pains, or perhaps not. I’m not sure what Smith’s own experiences were like, but she doesn’t give much of a reason to desire pregnancy.

Smith’s description of the scorn and rejection heaped on a girl who had a baby out of wedlock was also interesting. Many women who had given birth only a few months after marriage were foremost in condemning the girl who didn’t succeed in dragging the man to the altar. Worse than that, it was the women in the family of the father of the child who made sure he didn’t get “trapped” by the girl - even though he was willing to marry her. I have done enough paternity cases to have seen this over and over again. The pregnant girl is looked on as the epitome of evil by the mother of the man, as if he would have been fine but for her charms. This is real life, and I understand why Francie at this point decides she doesn’t want to be friends with women in the future. (Obviously, not all women are like this, but enough are to make this an everyday occurrence.)

Unsympathetic women are a veritable theme in this book. The librarian never looks Francie in the eye, and keeps recommending the same two books to her over and over again, not even noticing her age as she comes into womanhood. A teacher calls her stories of her life (written as school assignments) “sordid” due to their descriptions of poverty and alcoholism. Her own mother doesn’t seem to understand her. (Katie is otherwise admirable as a character - her view of Francie is her most conspicuous flaw.)

This comes to a head in a scene roughly three-quarters through the book. After Johnnie dies, Katie is left with only her own income and what the children can bring in. She decides that her son should be the one to attend High School, while Francie works to help support the family. This is particularly galling to Francie, as Neeley is not really all that interested - but she is, and she is the one that has to wait or find her own way.

The argument that ensues is devastating, in part because everything is understated. While I have not experienced this exact situation, Francie’s carefully chosen words are so perfect that I feel them at the depths of my own heart, in a way I cannot fully express.

“But I’m the one who’ll go away, and I won’t make a speech about it. When the time comes that you don’t need what I earn, I’ll leave.”

And the heart of the issue: “No, I can’t see. I can only see that you favor Neeley more than me. You fix everything for him and tell me that I can find a way myself. Someday, I’ll fool you, Mama. Someday I’ll do what is right for me, and it might not be right in your way.” And, “Yes, he’s a good boy, but even if he was bad, you wouldn’t notice it. But where I’m concerned...”

After this blow-up, there is a reconciliation of sorts, and life goes on, but, “But in their secret hearts, each knew that it wasn’t all right, and would never be all right between them again.”

It really is a powerful scene, and serves as the apex of the novel. I don’t want to create the impression that this book is a downer, because it really is full of hope, tempered by realism, and the argument is truly the moment when Francie comes of age, and becomes her own woman.

In several scenes, Smith carefully constructs a view of companionate marriage that I loved. First, as a negative example, the tavern keeper has become impotent due to a lack of personal connection with his wife. He wants to talk with her about profound topics, and connect with her on that intellectual level, but she really isn’t interested. As the author puts it, “Gradually then, because he could not share his inner self with her, he lost the power of being a husband to her, and she was unfaithful to him.”

Later, Francie has a deep experience while up on the rooftop on New Years Eve. She tries to explain it to her brother, Neeley, but he doesn’t quite get it. She thinks to herself, “I need someone. I need to hold someone close. And I need more than this holding. I need someone to understand how I feel at a time like now. And the understanding must be part of the holding.”
I have been there “on the rooftop” many a time. And I know exactly what she means.

As Francie grows toward adulthood, she has a brief romantic attachment to a soldier, who attempts to seduce her. She declines, but later, after he turns out to have married his fiance soon afterward, she asks her mother whether she should have slept with him. Katie’s answer is intriguing, as she splits it between what she would say as a mother, and what she would say as a woman. I am hardly the best person to give an objective response to this. Katie says, “I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once you love that way.” It’s hard to be objective here because I have only loved once. Sure, I had a crush or two in high school, but my wife is the first and only woman I ever dated. I was fortunate enough to have found her early in life; and also fortunate that she returned my love and desire. I have loved once that way, and I understand why I may well never love another like that again. That is why I can’t simply make a moralizing statement. Sure, I know the potentially devastating effects of a wrong choice. (I’m a lawyer. Mistakes end up in my office.) But there is a part of me that knows that I am unusually blessed to have found a true soul mate while I was still young.

Finally (on this subject), I completely identify with Francie in the aftermath of this heartbreak. She laments, “No! I don’t want to need somebody. I want someone to need me.” As I noted in regard to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Jane Eyre, the beloved must be desired and needed for his or her own sake, or it really isn’t love, but disguised selfishness. “Take me for longing, or leave me behind.” 

Note on the “Tree”: The tree itself plays a much smaller role than I expected in this story. True, Francie reads on the fire escape in the shade of the tree, and it serves at the end as a metaphor of Francie and her family when the landlord cuts it down, but it regrows. However, I suspect that an editor cut some of the material that would have tied the tree and the story together. 


The tree in question is a “Tree of Heaven,” an Asian import that is widely considered an invasive pest these days. It has a tendency to produce suckers, and has an unpleasant odor. (My Sierra Nevada guide mentions it as living in the foothills and occasionally crowding out native species.) This fact, if anything, heightens the analogy. Nobody wants it, but it survives and thrives in a variety of unfavorable habitats.


  1. I like how you always tie music into your book reviews. :)

    I can't say I'm going to read this one. I've read a few reviews that made it sound unappealing (to me). I think I would have a hard time getting past certain details.

    That said, it was very interesting hearing of your adventures with it.

  2. This is an old favorite of mine--glad you read and enjoyed it!!

  3. This is one I've been meaning to read, and your review has certainly encouraged that desire!

  4. Do you mostly compose just for this site or you do that for other online resources?

    1. This site grew out of a series of reviews I wrote for family and friends that I posted on Facebook. I decided to make it public on this site. I also re-publish selected reviews in our County Bar Association magazine. While I have guest blogged for friends, I haven't written for other sites.