Source of Book: I own this.
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
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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
I have been there “on the rooftop” many a time. And I know exactly what she means.
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.
(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.”
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.
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.
I like how you always tie music into your book reviews. :)ReplyDelete
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.
This is an old favorite of mine--glad you read and enjoyed it!!ReplyDelete
This is one I've been meaning to read, and your review has certainly encouraged that desire!ReplyDelete
Do you mostly compose just for this site or you do that for other online resources?ReplyDelete
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.Delete