Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith — 528 pgs

This is the classic story of Francie Nolan and her impoverished family. Growing up in turn of the century Brooklyn, Francie struggles greatly to live a normal life amid the abject poverty surrounding her. Her mother, Katie, a house-cleaner, never seems to have much time to devote to her, and Francie suspects that her mother feels a greater affection for her kid brother Neely than herself. Her father, Johnny, is the apple of her eye, but repeatedly lets the family down due to his chronic drinking and troubles keeping himself employed. As Francie relates the dramas of her days, both great and small, she comes to observe the prejudices and inequities all around her. She greatly details all the colorful characters who make cameo appearances in her life, such as her Aunt Sissy, a "bad girl" who is, nevertheless, uncommonly kind and generous. Scraping by on whatever they can eek out of life, Francie's family is no stranger to hardship and adversity. As the young girl turns into a woman, she gains an uncommon understanding of life and her place in the world. For Francie has big dreams and plans and won't let her poor station in life prevent her from accomplishing her goals. Through the foibles and tears of her childhood, Franice emerges battered yet triumphant in this marvelously engineered tale of hardship and acceptance.

I was really excited to finally read this book. Up until this point, I had heard a lot about it and that it was a staple of modern literature, and was delighted to get the chance to delve into it. What I found surprised me, for although this was a story of triumph, it was bitterly sad and overwhelming at times, and I struggled with many emotions as I read my way through.

Francie is a typical girl living in a bleak world. Though she does her best to have a bright outlook on life, she struggles with her situation and the restrictions it places on her. She is a stellar student, but because she is poor, she gets very short shrift from her teachers and is constantly having to make do with less of an education than other, more affluent girls of her age. She is a solitary child who is constantly bullied and harassed by others her age, and it’s really only her brother who provides most of her companionship. Francie goes through life feeling the anxieties of a poor girl and wonders whether or not she will turn out like all the other people she sees living in the tenements and struggling along day to day. She collects junk from the gutters with the other children in her neighborhood, hoping to sell it to the junk man for a few pennies to buy a frivolity, a sad indulgence that she comes to depend on.

I was really surprised to see just how little money the family survived on. Between her mother's work and the occasional odd job that her father picked up, Francie's family seemed to have to do more scrimping than the other families in her neighborhood, and most times they left the table hungry. Smith takes the time to give the details about the family’s finances, recording just how much money Katie brings in each week and how much even tiny expenditures are costing them. In one part of the book, Francie relates all the meals that her mother makes for them with week old, stale bread. There is a bread loaf (much like a meatloaf, made with ketchup, bread and egg) and fried bread, and bread pudding, along with plain slices of bread with butter. Meat is a rarity in their household, and they’re much more likely to get a bone picked almost clean for a pot of soup than an actual piece of meat. I marveled at the ingenuity of the family's use of the bread, but it also made me sad and disheartened. The children were often described as hollow-eyed and gangly, no doubt because of the food restrictions they were made to endure.

The relationship between young Francie and her father was sad as well. Johnny never wanted a family (a fact that he never hides from Francie) and he’s slowly drinking himself into an early grave. Though Francie loves her father with all of her heart, she can never be truly proud of him because she too often sees him stumbling home after a night of drinking, and the work that he cannot seem to get has to be done by her forever suffering mother. Katie puts up with Johnny's selfish and slovenly behavior with a no nonsense attitude, but the hard work and worry wear her down to a coarse nub over time. As Francie observes, her mother's gay attitude dissolves away into one of bitter supplication and acceptance. I was a little mad that Katie was forever forgiving Johnny his excesses. I felt that she should have put her foot down many times, but I also understand that at the time, a woman's life and prospects were far different than they are today. It was just very wearying to read about at times. No matter what the family tried to do to improve their lot, some unseen hand kept coming down to crush their dreams.

Though I admired Katie at times for her persistence, I found it maddening that she harbored favoritism in her heart for her youngest son. She tried valiantly to keep this revelation from Francie, but the girl was very bright and it was easy for her to see it anyway. Often while I was reading, I wept internally for Francie, for I felt that she was unloved and always put upon. She didn't dwell on it, but it was plain to her as the nose on her face that she was not the favored child, and that no matter how she tried to love her mother, she would never gain that position. She was hit with prejudice from all sides in her life, and it was horrible to see that it extended itself towards her, even in her own household. Though she tried, she was never able to be a carefree little girl because the pressures of life were weighing her down. It was eye-opening to see the way in which the poor struggled in this story. They were constantly maligned by the more affluent and even took it upon themselves to form little groups of prejudice and hatred. They were scorned by others and by themselves, and theirs was a society plagued by bullying, rumors and contempt. In one section of the book, Francie is castigated by her teacher for writing true stories about her life. The teacher tells Francie her stories are filled with ugliness and makes her promise only to write about beautiful things, things that Francie knows nothing about. Her teacher makes her feel despondent and alienated, much like the other more fortunate people in her life do. With a broken spirit, Francie complies with her teacher's wishes, only to begin fabricating stories of deceit and grandeur.

As I was reading, I came to see that this period of time was simpler, yet more difficult. The people that lived during these times seemed almost innocent but were faced with such extreme hardship and prejudice that it would be wrong to assume that their lives were less complicated than ours are today. There was a sense of community in the book that doesn't seem to exist today, but there was a niggling sense of failure that permeated the lives of the characters as well. Many of the situations in this book were heartrending and sad, and there seemed only to be brief joy in the characters’ striving. It seemed like a very hard time in which to live, let alone thrive. Though I did enjoy this book, it was not what I had been expecting at all. It was a very finely crafted and engaging story and had a wonderful narrator in Francie, but it was also bleak and at times very dark. I was glad to see Francie finally get out of the cycle of poverty that ate up everyone around her, and since reading the book, have often let my mind journey into speculation about her future. I think that readers who haven’t experienced this piece of Americana would get a lot out of this book, and though it gave me a heavy heart, I do recommend it. I would love to hear the opinions of others who have read this book because I'd be interested to hear other reactions to it. This is not a book to be missed, but be aware that it is at times emotionally heavy.

25 comments:

JaneGS said...

I read this last year for the first time, and I was also surprised at the bleakness but felt that Francie's spirit, for the most part, redeemed it. I found I was more forgiving of Katie than are a lot of readers, and felt she did the best she could in preparing her daughter for the tough times she faced as a woman in that world.

I also liked it because it provided me a glimpse into the world my mother grew up in. Though she was born 20 years after Francie, much of her life could have been lifted from Francie's.

I agree, it is a modern lit classic--well-written and still very moving.

Wall-to-wall books said...

Ahhh you know, I have never read this book.
I have always wanted to. I have heard a lot of people liked it.

Jennifer @ Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I really enjoyed this one. I would love to reread eventually.

Trisha said...

Every time I see a review of this book it's like a hard pinch reminding me that I've been meaning to read it for like 15 years..... :)

Suko said...

Your review is profound, sensitive, and touching. I read this many years ago, but I remember also being very deeply moved by this classic story. Your review has made me long to reread the book-- hopefully before too long.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I read this when I was much younger. I think I was maybe twelve or thirteen? I remember really loving it and I always meant to get back to it again. It is extremely sad, compared to what one might expect, which can be a little jarring. Something about that heaviness just seemed to be son engaging and like you, I still remember what "might have happened" afterwards to Francie. As a kid, I loved this book so much that I always recommended it to others. Your post reminds me that this might be a perfect gift for my niece this Christmas. She loves to read and has read several classics that I've given her, so even though she is only ten, I think she might love to have this one, too.

Ti said...

I do remember it being very dark. You captured that in the review while at the same time, appreciating that things were different back then.

As I struggle with financial stuff today, I find that simplicity is sometimes okay. Sometimes has to be okay. It's something mu kids are learning because what they had before is a thing of the past these days. That's what a struggling family business will do to you.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

This book made me feel ALL THE THINGS which is, I think, the reason I loved it so much. I felt such a kinship with Francie as I grew up in a similar situation to her (not nearly as poor, but we struggled quite a bit and I could empathize with her in that way), and the fact that she was such a book lover was, obviously, incredibly close to my heart. And I get what you said about her mother showing favoritism to her brother, but at the same time I felt that her mother was such a strong, independent person - at least to the point that was socially acceptable to be in that era. I don't know, it tugged at my heartstrings and crept into my soul and I just loved this book. Great review today.

Melissa said...

I've always wanted to read this one too. I've so many good things about it, but never realized it was that long!

Vasilly said...

This book sounds amazing! I've never read this before but after your fantastic review, I want to read this.

Harvee Lau said...

I remember being impressed by the book when I read it so long ago. It seems I'll have to reread it as it has so much more than I remember, based on your review. Nice one!

Beth F said...

I LOVED this book. But I read it so long ago (I was in junior high) I don't remember the details. Perhaps I should find the time to re-read.

Audra said...

Such a wonderfully thoughtful review -- I read this as a teenager and remember liking it but your observations and comments have me aching for an adult reread. I have no memory of the favoritism which is odd b/c usually I'm so sensitive to that vibe (and get wangsty about it!) -- you've really made me giddy about finding this one and rereading it. Thanks for that. :)

nomadreader said...

I have been meaning to read this one for far too long. I'm glad to know it's such an emotional read so I can prepare myself!

Jenny said...

I just read this for the first time a couple years ago, but I loved it! Have you read Girl in Translation? If you haven't, it's sort of like the Asian version of this and is also a must read!

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

This is one of those classics that has been on my list for a long time. Loved your honest review. I honestly had no idea what is was about.
2 Kids and Tired Books

Brooke said...

Wanted to read this one for ages and surprised to hear how bleak and dark it is - not something I had previously expected. Fantastic review, as always!

Jenners said...

I really do need to read this. Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I can't believe I still haven't read this! It sounds exactly like the kind of thing I love.

Aarti said...

I read this book for the first time last summer while living in New York and I fell completely in love with it. I think there is a kind-of sequel that is set in Ann Arbor, too, which made me SUPER-excited. I am so glad you enjoyed this one, too.

Darlene said...

I picked up the audio of this one a while back when it was on sale. I seem to remember reading it years ago but I can't remember much of the story so I'm not sure. It's pretty bad when you can't remember what you have and haven't read. Lol.

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

I haven't read it yet, but I got a copy after Amanda recommended it to me a couple of years ago. Your review makes it sound a lot more complex, with more depth than I had expected. It sounds like a sad, but important book.

Kailana said...

I read this book a few years ago and keep saying I am going to reread it because I don't remember it as well as I would like... Sadly that never seems to happen...

Jules said...

I've never read this book I really looks like I need to get myself a copy. I sounds fascinating. I always set it a side, but I think it's time I get on to reading it.

Lisa said...

I almost picked this one up recently; don't even recall why I put it back. Sounds like that was a mistake. I'll definitely be waiting to read it until I'm in the right frame of mind; sounds like I want to be in a good emotional place before I start!

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