A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Friday, March 5, 2010

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Pages: 493
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: HP Modern Classics (Harper Collins)
Release Date: 1943 (original)

I was going to wait to review this until my sister finished it and we discussed, but we didn't do very well at reading together this time, lol. So I'll post this and she and I can discuss later. =)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a modern classic written in 1943 by Betty Smith. I didn't realize this when I first started reading, but Brooklyn is an autobiographical novel. According to the forward written by Anna Quindlen (quick tip that I learned a long time ago: never read the forward to a classic until after you have read the book, unless you love spoilers) Betty Smith originally tried to publish this book as a memoir. She was told to change it into a novel because it would never sell as a memoir. But in reading the extras that were included at the end of this book by the publisher, it is obvious that the author and the main character, Francie Nolan, are one and the same!

Just like Francie Nolan, Betty Smith grew up in Brooklyn in the early 1900's with immigrant parents. (The book flap says German immigrants, but I really thought it was Irish.. so I left it at just plain immigrants). She knew what it was to be poor and to have to go without food at times. She made it a point to attend school and gain an education so she could succeed in her life. She loved reading and spent hours in the library. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is basically the story of Francie, her parents, and her brother, Neely. It is hearwarming because Francie and Neely are such endearing characters. And I loved seeing what the mother and father went through to try to provide for their children and maintain their standard of living.

One of the great things about Brooklyn was the manner in which it demonstrated the value in reading and education. This is exemplified in the quote below.

pg. 83
"Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?"
"The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret."

I think one of the things I loved about this book was the way I was able to visualize people and life in the 1900's to 1940's. It always fascinates me to see how similar people are over time. People think and do the same things today in the 2010's that they thought and did both in the 1940's and even 1900's. I try to imagine that it was in the 40's when the author was writing this, but she was also recording her own life from the early 1900's. Having the opportunity to peek at humanity during this time was fun for me, and Ms. Smith did a fantastic job of describing this world for the reader. Here's one example I found that shows how people over time have remained the same and provides an important message too.

pg. 237-238
Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hears and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman... whether it was by throwing stones or by mean gossip. It was the only kind of loyalty they seemed to have.
Men were different. They might hate each other but they stuck together against the world and against any woman who would ensnare one of them.

While I don't necessarily agree with this line of thinking 100% of the time, I know that it holds some truth today; and I know some women who believe this is completely true today!

I also learned some things about that time frame; for instance, jobs existed at a "clipping bureau" where girls would read all the country's newspapers to find any clippings related to a topic that their client wanted and they'd cut them out and send them. (At least that was my understanding of the job. I could be wrong!) How interesting! And a great way to stay up on current events. I might like a job like that now, haha. The writing was also engaging. It was by no means difficult reading, and for that reason, would be a good "classic" to read if you haven't.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been criticized for its lack of distinctive plot. Let me clarify this for you. It doesn't have the twist and turn plots that are popular in most books (and that I think are necessary for so many). It is about the life of Francie and her family as they try to fit in and live in 1900's Brooklyn. We watch Francie grow from a child into a woman and read about her different experiences. For me, the storyline reminded me of books I have read by Maeve Binchy even though she's a more modern writer. The focus of the story is not so much on a specific plot as it is about the people. I will admit there was a moment, somewhere between pages 100 and 200, that I thought "ohhhh where is this going? i'm getting bored!" That was where the author began describing the history of her maternal relatives and paternal. I probably could have done without it, but it did contribute to why each of her family members was the way they were. I stuck with it and am glad I did! And really, once I got past that part, there were still different things that occurred in Francie's life that were interesting. In fact, there were various moments throughout the book that I either laughed out loud or that brought tears to my eyes.

I thought this book had a great message in it for women about persevering and working hard. It was also a great story about family. It told about the struggle for people to do better for themselves, but also told about the hypocrisy inherent in society.

pg. 147 A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. Yet, as she stood there, she knew that years later she would be haunted by the sorrow in the face of that starveling child and that she would wish bitterly that she had said a comforting word then and done something towards the saving of her immortal soul. She had the knowledge that she was small but she lacked the courage to be otherwise.

So, in all, I thought A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was a beautifully written story about a family in Brooklyn. I adored Francie and Neely (and even the rest of the characters, though they sometimes frustrated me!) Did I love this book? Pretty much. It might be different if it were randomly written today and didn't have the background it does. But nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book and will definitely read it again someday!

Other Reviews
The Zen Leaf
Five Borough Book Review


Amanda said...

Glad you liked it! I really love this book. :)

(sorry to leave such an inane comment - too sick to come up with something clever. :D )

Jenny said...

That's okay, lol. =) Thanks for leaving a comment anyway... hoep you feel better though!!

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

You wrote a very well thought review. I've had this one on my shelf for awhile now and actually never really knew what it was about, just that it was a classic and I should read it.
I do like to read about that time period 1900-1940. I think I would have liked the job at the clipping bureau!

Michelle (my books. my life.) said...

I thought it was Irish, too.

My understanding of the clipping job (it took me awhile to figure it out) is that you looked for any mention of the client. Like setting up a google alert for your name. But I could be wrong.

Glad you liked the book. I read it last year and really liked it.

Jeannie said...

I have loved this book for so long...it is one of my absolute favorites! And I love how you were able to tie in Maeve Binchy and her ability to write about people and their everyday circumstances. She is my favorite author for just that reason! What a nice review!

Bonnie said...

I have always meant to read this book but never have. Enjoyed your review.

The clipping bureau is for real...or at least it used to be. Years ago I worked for a company that subscribed for the service and they would send actual articles to us via the mail that they would find and clip for us. It was my job to glue or tape it into a scrapbook. Can't imagine much of a need for the service now with the internet.

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

What a wonderful review! I agree that this book has a great message. I love the quotes you chose.

Jennifer (Crazy-for-Books) said...

I've had this book in my TBR for a while now. You wrote a wonderful review that makes me want to go grab it and read it right now! Really nice review!

Thanks for joining the Hop!

Cindy said...

I have been eyeing this book for awhile now. I think i might have to pick it up. Great review.

Thanks for adding me as a follower I have returned the favor and I have you listed in my blog roll now. You have great blog.

Jenny said...

Michelle (RHBC)-- Thanks! You should definitely read it!

Michelle (mybooks.mylife) -- yes, you're right... it does sound exactly like that!

Jeannie -- yay! I'm glad you agree about maeve binchy! I love her books too. I've only read 3, but loved them all.

Bonnie -- that's so interesting! sounds like sort of a fun job!

Stephanie -- thanks! There were so many great quotes to choose from!

Jennifer -- Thanks! I'm glad my sister convinced me to read it now b/c it's possible it would have been a long time before I did!

Cindy -- thanks!! And yes, definitely pick it up!

April (BooksandWine) said...

Isn't it fascinating how little some things change over time?

I had no idea this was an autobiographical tale. I read my mom's copy which I think is a first edition, but I'm not sure, all I know is it didn't have a foreward.

Oh, and I totally HATE when the foreword spoils the story, I mean, if it's going to be rife with spoilers why not tack it on at the end.

dkm1981 said...

I've heard of this but never had any idea what it was about. Fantastic review - I really enjoyed reading it!

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