Friday, July 15, 2016

Books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of the quintessential New York books. I like it for the way it captures, in great detail, city life in the early 20th century. Betty Smith brings you not just the general sights and sounds, but the way people talked, the kinds of food they ate and how they ate it, how different ethnicities coexisted, and so much more. If it were merely an archive of urban life during a critical growth period in American history, it would still be valuable - but of course, it's much more than that.

I had read Tree before, but I was still amazed at the frankness Smith brings to the story of young Francie Nolan. Long before Judy Blume, Smith writes from a child's-eye view about things like sex, menstruation, inter-gender dynamics, and even rape. Francie yearns to understand the world and her place in it, and even if she's not as outgoing or sociable as her peers, or even her brother Neeley, one gets the feeling she'll be all right anyway.

I found her mother, Katie, a curiosity. She meets Johnny, the man who will become her husband, by straight up stealing him from her best friend without any apologies. In time, she realizes Johnny's an alcoholic who can't provide for his family like he should, but she remains loyal to him. And after he dies, she denies herself happiness with another man who truly loves her (before giving in eventually) out of that same loyalty. I realize part of her behavior is a result of the cultural mores of the time and place she lived in, but she struck me as a paradox, not easily pinned down.

Betty Smith
And then there's Aunt Sissy. As wonderful (and perfectly cast!) as Joan Blondell was as Sissy in the movie, one does not truly appreciate her character, as written in the book, is basically a raging nymphomaniac! (Of course, that sort of characterization wasn't possible back then.) Smith recognizes her, um, uniqueness in this regard, but she also writes her with a great deal of sympathy unusual for the time (early 40s) this book was written.

Indeed, Smith treats many of her characters this way. Even peripherals who come and go in only one or two scenes get examined closely by Smith, who hops in and out of people's heads freely. It's a bit off-putting at first to contemporary writers like me who were taught to stick to one POV at a time, but one gets used to it over the course of the story.

I did think Tree went on a bit too long. There were moments late in the book, after Johnny's death, that seemed either superfluous (I didn't think Katie really needed another child) or dragged (Francie's employment experiences). It wasn't much of a bother, though. Tree is one of the great novels of the 20th century and should be on every young adult reading list.

The Thin Man


  1. This is a book I've been meaning to read. I even have a copy at home. Will get to it eventually. Thanks for your review!

  2. I know you will love this book. I hope you write about it too.


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