A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my January book from my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge as well as being a book on my Classics Club Challenge List.
Growing up in the South and reading and relating to a story like To Kill A Mockingbird is what I believe little girl readers did in the North with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The book is a coming of age tale of precocious Francie Nolan who is eleven years old in 1912 and is as poor as is expected of any immigrant family in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. The novel follows Francie and her family from 1912 to 1916.
Author: Betty Smith
Publication Date: 1943
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Where I Got It: The School Library I Work In
Dates I Read It: January 5 - January 18, 2013
Number of Stars: 5/5
I loved this book. I was smitten with Francie from page one and I didn't stop loving her despite her awkward adolescent years and her sometimes frustrating choices. Picking up the book was never a chore for me and I often found myself longing to be curled up on my couch with my friend Francie. I loved each character in this story despite not being able to relate to a single one of them (except, of course, Francie). I love a good Immigrant story and that's exactly what this is. Francie and her brother Neely are second generation Americans living in Brooklyn born of an Irish Father and an Austrian mother. The family is dirt poor as the father is a drunkard and the mother works entirely too hard for a woman to provide for her family and invents games to play when there is literally no food in the house for weeks at a time. I kept picturing Francie as a young Sophia Petrillo as the only previous notions I had of Brooklyn came from Sophia's character on the television show The Golden Girls and her frequent rants about the old days which started with "Picture it, Brooklyn, 1912.."
The story is very much character-driven and there is little to no action in the entire book. It is about the day to day lives of American families doing their best to survive in war time (WWI breaks out two years into the book while Francie is working for a newspaper company) with no money and difficult jobs. I read this book for almost two weeks and one evening Geoff asked me about it saying that a friend of his read it in high school and hated it. It would be a difficult read for a boy as there is no action and it is the story of a girl coming of age. However, as a girl who came of age (albeit not in the early 1900s), I could relate a lot to the struggles of Francie and I could easily sympathize with several life moments that she had to go through during the course of the novel. Things like losing a first love, death, the loss of dreams and hopes and the fact that women are at a disadvantage to men, especially in areas like education and the workplace.
Betty Smith does have a knack for writing and I had serious suspicions that this was more memoir than fiction for her. After I finished the book this morning (thank goodness for a teacher workday that I opted out of) I went online to read about Ms. Smith and discovered that most people believe that this was the story of her own coming of age. The emotions were so true and she was able to capture a moment perfectly that it would be very surprising if the events of the novel were not something that she had lived through herself.
The novel caused me to both laugh out loud and cry, especially the ending. I found myself being nostalgic for my youth more than usual while reading this book, much like a grown-up Francie does at the end of the novel. I don't want to ruin the ending, but Francie leaves us on a high note with recaptured hopes for her future, which in turn made me reevaluate my own future and have hopes that perhaps I, too, could one day recapture some dreams I once had but forgot due to the pressures of bills and the day to day grind of life.