Truth through the eyes of a young girl
Everyone who loves to read has a favorite story that speaks to them from the printed words on the page as if they were a fond friend. These books are held so rarely in our hands that when we stumble across one, each beautifully crafted phrase is savored like a deliciously rich morsel of gourmet chocolate one gets to enjoy only on holidays.
It is these books that one feels are written solely for them, a story no one else could possibly understand and appreciate in the same way. The ability to read and love literature is a gift to be treasured.
I have read and reread “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” enough times that the book’s spine is now worn and tattered.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” gives away the starkly innocent truths that surround not only a young and impoverished girl growing up in New York in the early 1900s but an entire time period, culture and place with such an intensity and vividness that even the smallest of events occur within the novel’s pages with flashes of brilliance.
First published in 1943, author Betty Smith’s timeless novel has remained popular throughout the decades.
Based on her own experiences growing up in Brooklyn, Smith shares many of the same characteristics as the main heroine.
The novel follows the young life of Mary Frances Nolan, or Francie, through her struggles and success with her experiences during the antebellum of World War I. Although many novels about the life of a child or books written from the perspective of children have been successful and popular, Francie’s story stands out for the truths and reality described within the desperate survival of the second-generation-immigrant Nolan family.
Smith writes her novel with stark and almost excruciating bluntness. From the descriptions of the brutality of human nature to the unfathomable harsh conditions winter and unemployment brings to starving children, Smith captures truths about suffering and poverty through the eyes of Francie.
A culture that survives on the exchange of pennies is the landscape for commerce for citizens of Brooklyn. The children collect trash on the streets, which they sell to the junk man for a few pennies each Saturday. Francie receives a “pinching penny” if she lets the junk man pinch her cheek, which is one of Francie’s first experiences with nefariously sexual men.
Even the air shaft, which lets only dirty grey light into the flat the Nolans call home, fills Francie with dread and panic at its filthy, bloody, hidden contents. The grunge of Brooklyn doesn’t end there. The tenements where the poor must live are so poorly built that Francie must endure each fight, rape and birth as it is filtered through the walls. Experiences that Francie looks forward to are sometimes disappointing and they make her re-evaluate her situation and preconceived notions.
Yet, like Smith writes, “There has to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.”
Although Smith discloses some of the most awful scenarios and circumstances surrounding the young Francie, the book is neither depressing nor is it negative. One example of the joys in life is when Francie and her brother win, through sheer perseverance, the largest Christmas tree in the neighborhood — and as it is tossed to them, the tree brings Neely to his knees and scratches their faces with its drying needles.
Francie learns that the key to escaping her economic situation is education, and she finds comfort and friendship in her lonely world through reading and literature. Her self-education allows her to find work straight out of grade school to support her family after the death of her beloved father. She is also able to enroll and attend college.
Francie’s life is not only enriched by her education, but also her impossibly unquenchable thirst for life.
As she and her brother celebrate the new year on the roof of their building, Francie explains to him how she gets drunk off of the simplest but most amazing things in life like a tulip blooming in a park.
“Well, when I looked at it, the way it was growing, and how the leaves were, and how purely red the petals were with yellow inside, the world turned upside-down and everything went around like the colors in a kaleidoscope — like you said. I was so dizzy I had to sit on a park bench,” Francie exclaims.
Francie’s world is one of discovery and reveals her situation through truthful eyes. Surrounded by strong women — including her mother, Kaite, and her aunts Sissy and Evy — Francie has the support and the guidance she needs, even though she doesn’t always have the love of her mother.
Smith writes strong female characters into her novel without even a hint of an overbearing feminist agenda. All of Smith’s characters impact the novel and are so punctiliously described that even the weak characters are solid.
Francie experiences hunger, alcoholism, death, pedophilia — but she also experiences the joys of reading, the performance of traveling musicians, and love.
Through Francie, Smith is able to paint a picture of Brooklyn, a character in and of itself, and create a novel of unparalleled meticulous detail and grandeur. The novel is broken up into five different books with each chapter serving as its own vignette. Smith uses tone and metaphor with incredible beauty and even the most disheartening scenes are made bearable with the reader’s consumption of the elegantly crafted sentences.
Like the tree that Francie reads beneath as a young adult, this book is one of perseverance, of light emerging from the darkest places, and of hope and success few individuals can bear to strive for.
Betty Smith’s novel is not a clichéd classic, but a novel whose greatness should be uniquely adored — not only for the city and lives it endeavours to reveal but also for the passages that Smith creates with the artistic beauty that only a master of the pen could bring into existence.
Contact Kelcie MacRunnels