A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - the classic coming-of-age story of a young girl in early 1900s Brooklyn
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Genre: Classic, General Fiction
Published 1943, 496 pages
If I read this in school, I certainly don't remember it. I felt like it was time to see what all the rave reviews are about so when the library reopened, I requested it. I didn't really have an idea of what it's about which is maybe the best way to start the book. No expectations. In the prologue I learned the book was originally intended as a memoir but the publishers didn't think it would sell, so convinced her to present it as fiction.
It's a quiet story, nothing specific really happens, and yet everything happens. Francie is 10 at the beginning of the story - a smart, inquisitive little girl who idolizes her dad, loves her little brother, and respects her mom. She's a very lonely little girl who has a hard time making friends and who doesn't fit in anywhere.
“She had become accustomed to being lonely. She was used to walking alone and to being considered 'different.' She did not suffer too much."
Her mom and aunts believe very strongly that education is important, is the way out of their abject poverty. Every night her mom reads Shakespeare and the bible to the kids. And when she learns how to read on her own, reading becomes her world and she vows to read a book a day.
"The world was hers for the reading. 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. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. 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.”
Smith explores all the emotions, thoughts, and confusions that a young girl goes through as she's trying to figure out her place in the world, her beliefs, what she wants to be when she grows up, etc. The story deals with a few difficult situations like alcoholism (her dad), sibling favoritism, an attack, cruelty from other kids and even teachers, death and births - it's a book about life.
As she got a little older and experimented with writing, she wrote in her journal: "Intolerance is a thing that causes war, pogroms, crucifixions, lynchings, and makes people cruel to little children and to each other. It is responsible for most of the viciousness, violence, terror, and heart and soul breaking of the world."
Though on the surface this appears a bleak and depressing story, ultimately it's one full of hope and a person who is looking for the best from life. Though it's not my favorite book this year, I'm glad I took the time to read it.
If your book club wants to read something other than a new release, this would be a worthy consideration. There are so many themes and the depictions of a particular era of New York that there would be lots of points for discussion.