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A Profoundly Moving Classic
on 27 May 2005
I was seriously deprived as an adolescent. I never even heard of Betty Smith's classic novel "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," let alone read it. And I was an avid reader who lived relatively close to Brooklyn. Whatever the reason for this significant omission in my early literary development, I remedied the situation recently, (yes, it took me a while). I can only echo here what millions of other readers have said since the book's publication in 1943, this is an extraordinary novel which enriches and delights. I can understand why The New York Public Library chose it as one of the "Books of the Century."
Ms. Smith grew up in Brooklyn and drew from her own experiences to portray the hardships of the Nolans, a tenement family living in that borough's Williamsburg slums during the early part of the 20 century. Teenage Francie Nolan is an avid reader who wants to become a writer. She adores her father John, an alcoholic with a multitude of pipe dreams. He, in turn, loves his children and tries to be a good father, but he is not able to carry out his responsibilities. Nolan has become a dissipated man due to his alcohol addiction. Francie believes in him regardless, (and she's the only one), because they're soul-mates. Although it seems contradictory, the girl also possesses a strong practical streak. Her mother, Katie, abandoned all illusions for a better life long ago. She is rendered almost emotionless by a surfeit of her husband's grand schemes. However she stresses to her children that education is the only path out of the tenements. Grandma Rommely, Katie's mother, also reinforces the importance of education.
There is a single ordinary tree visible from the Nolan's tenement window. It grows doggedly through the cement, in spite of harsh conditions which thwart it's development. Yet, it perseveres. For Francie and her father the tree symbolizes hope - the blossoming of life against all odds. It is like a beacon of of light in the darkness of their daily lives. Francie has the tenacity of that tree, and remains steadfast to her dreams. Unlike her father, she has the inner strength and resourcefulness to make them come true.
The author poignantly depicts the Nolan's struggles to survive and grow in a world of poverty, hunger, class prejudice and tremendous loss. Francie, a courageous girl, of strong character, comes of age here under extremely difficult circumstances. The portrait of her family members and her relationship with them is beautifully drawn, especially her relationship with her brother Neely. And turn-of-the-century Williamsburg is brought vividly to life. Broader topics are also introduced which enhance the narrative tremendously, such as, WWI, immigration, and politics of the period. Smith's characters are strong and well developed. She uses flashbacks to tell the fascinating story of John Nolan's courtship of Katie, their marriage and early years together.
"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" is a heartfelt, moving novel which touched me deeply. Betty Smith's prose is powerful, as are her storyline and characters. Author Anna Quindlen writes an excellent Foreward for this edition. This is a book I will keep to reread in the future. I cannot recommend it highly enough.