Still growing in Brooklyn

How are you doing, Classics Challengers? I’ve finished reading my first book; the category was a classic by a woman author. When you have finished yours, post your review in the comments section of this entry. I look forward to hearing what you read and what you thought about it.

brooklynI read Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a book whose name is part of the American lexicon, like “The Sound and the Fury” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Everyone has heard this title, but how many have read it, I wonder. When I posted that this was my choice for the first category of the 2015 Classics Challenge, I had several women comment on my Facebook page that they loved this book when they read it as a child. I couldn’t help but think: You read this as a child? Yikes. There’s a lot in this novel that a child’s mind would find tough to process: Poverty, alcoholism, rape, frank sexuality and murder all weave their way into the sometimes meandering narrative.

From the little bit of research I did about Smith, “Tree” feels pretty autobiographical. It’s set in the area of Brooklyn where she grew up, which gives it an authenticity only someone who lived in and loved that neighborhood could give. From the outside, and from my comfortable home nearly 100 years after the time it was set, it would seem hard to love a place like Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early years of the last century. The poverty, the ignorance — both benign and malevolent — the bitterness all could weigh on and destroy anyone’s spirit. But Francie Nolan, the realistic young heroine, doesn’t let that happen. Thanks to her mother’s spirit and her father’s charm, her childhood seems just magical.

Life is hard for the poor, and Francie confronts those challenges every day, on a stomach that has never been full and from an apartment that was never warm enough in the winter and never cool in the summer. But Francie doesn’t complain and Smith doesn’t want us to pity her. She makes us admire her and her family for their fortitude. The Nolans, indeed all the residents of Williamsburg, are like the tree of the title. Smith explains it this way: “There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” It’s a lovely and apt symbol.

At times, this novel reminded me of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” which tells a similar story of a poverty stricken family whose troubles are exacerbated by an alcoholic father. The children of both these books see their only way out of poverty through education, and pursue it doggedly.

“Brooklyn” is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, and because of that, and because Smith covers too long a time span, it suffers from a lack of narrative structure. It’s too linear: This happened, then this happened and then this totally unrelated thing happened next. Chapters devoted to describing the neighborhood add nothing to the narrative because Smith had already drawn Williamsburg so beautifully. Weaving these chapters into the story would have gone a long way toward creating a book with a stronger momentum.

In addition, it was tough to get into the flow of Smith’s writing. Short, declarative sentence after short declarative sentence made the book feel like a rough draft at times, in need of smoothing out. But Smith’s insights into human nature are still provocative and profound today, which is probably why it’s a true classic. Near the middle of the book, when Francie fancies herself a writer, she is told by her teacher to write about better things: “Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects. … We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.” Francie asks what she should write about and the teacher says: “One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there.”

Smith finds beauty in the difficult lives of her characters. She humanizes them in a way people then didn’t and many even today won’t. And at the end, when Francie and her family are leaving Brooklyn behind for a better life, she laments that her baby sister won’t have the luxury of growing up poor. That says a lot about the kind of place Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was and the way it forged a strong, proud family like the Nolans.

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13 thoughts on “Still growing in Brooklyn

  1. I agree, A Tree would be too much for a young adult even. I read it in my forties, and I appreciate it as the testimony of a character, even though the story doesn’t flow, the power of it being honest kept me turning pages. That way of finding beauty where there’s none, those exchanges with the teacher, and her mom, and the way she sees her dad… everything makes this book a moral force, a historical testimony, and a personal validation of not only accepting life, but embracing it, an ode to love and beauty in the midst of the worse conditions.

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      1. I have a tendency to embellish my reading experiences and to romanticize my readings. I also am always looking for moral nourishment in books, and for validation (I have a hard time admitting I’ve wasted my time, ha ha ha). I’m an optimist reader, that’s why probably I enjoy your take on books, because you seem to have a fun and critical approach (as when you said we all remember the negative things more than the positive ones).
        I’m also fan of comparing and contrasting, stretching my views and revisiting my opinions.

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  2. Pingback: Hey Classics Challengers: I’m heading off to ‘Bleak House’ – Shelf Improvement

  3. Ron,
    I agree with what you said about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I finished reading it last week. Parts of the book were written in short declarative sentences which didn’t do much for the fluency of the piece. It was almost as if the author was trying to “jump start” her thinking in portions of the book but in others, her writing was so exceptional, the pictures she created made you feel as if you were with her. This was very evident in her descriptions/development of different characters. I also thought of Angela’s Ashes when I read this but I thought it was a less “in your face” and much more hopeful version. The book is an accurate historical representation of what it was like to live in the tenements during the time period. I really enjoyed the book with the exception of the last part when mama was getting married and they were moving out of the neighborhood. I thought that was kind of sappy OR it might just be that it was exam week where I teach and I had absolutely no time to read any more. 🙂

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  4. cbernas

    I finished Anita Loos’ Jazz age classic “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” last week. I tried to slow my reading of this fluffy little novella down so as to make sure I was getting SOMETHING out of it, but in the end I just decided it was just that – a 150 page (once you subtract the full and half-page illustrations) diary of a gold digging, not-as-dumb as-she-seems blonde (Lorelei Lee) who bores easily and is happy to be kept by men as long as they keep her in presents (of the diamond kind) – and cruised through it. The diary format works well as a way to get inside her vapid, somewhat humerous, thoughts about men, Europe, travel, etiquette, etc. and, by contrast to Lorelei, the hard boiled best friend and chaperone, Dorothy, in my opinion turns out to be the girl you really want to get to know. I found this true when I watched the movie version as well; NO one else but Marilyn Monroe could bring Lorelei to life, but it’s Dorothy, played by Jane Russell, who you’re really rooting for.

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  5. Peggy Ptasznik

    I enjoyed reading both Jenni’s and your reviews, Ron. I am not officially part of the challenge at the moment. I think when we read books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as children (junior high for me I think), we miss a great deal, of course, but my recollection is that the story took me to experiences so far removed from my own that I was intrigued by them. I felt safe reading about them if that makes any sense. I am currently reading Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Growing up in Cincinnati, I was surrounded by the history of the Taft family. I was in a city council speech competition when I was 16 and won the right to spend the day with Charles P. Taft, son of the President – a very happy memory.

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    1. Peggy, that’s a good point. I think many people say “I read that in school,” thinking they have already mined everything they could get out of it. The reality is, it’s often a completely different book. That’s a pretty amazing prize — an afternoon with the president’s son. You’ll have to tell me about it sometime. And join if you can when it fits your schedule. I, for one, would love to hear your insights.

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  6. Completed Out of Africa yesterday. With this selection, I read a book by an author I’d never read, a non-fiction book, a book based on a movie AND a book of short stories! I’m halfway through the challenge with only one book!!!

    Seriously, though, for people intrigued by Africa (and I am one of them) this book is fascinating, complete with such descriptive elements that I could truly see the plains and the Ngong Hills as I read. I felt I might even be able to touch and smell this isolated place.

    Out of Africa (the book) read more like a series of vignettes though and lacked an actual plot until the final section. It was a terrific read but how they got the movie from THIS book, I have no idea. Denys was a chapter in the final section and a few comments here and there. No romantic element at all. Barkley was an occasional visitor. If she was married, there was no mention of her husband. The only aspect of the movie that was quoted was Karen’s opening “I had a farm in Africa … ” and Kamante’s “I think you had better get up, Msabu. I think that God is coming.”

    But, aspiring world-travelers, experiencing the Africa of old is easy with this book … and cheaper than a ticket and all the shots you’d need if you went on safari today.

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    1. All right, Jenni! I kept thinking like you last year: How many books can I get this challenge down to if I read a book about war by a British woman in the 20th Century that was adapted to a movie. That would have checked off five categories. But I stayed honest. It’s too early in the year to start cheating. 🙂

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      1. Won’t cheat myself Ron. Promise! Didn’t realize when I started Out of Africa that it covered so many of the requirements. At any rate, I pledged to read 49 books this year. So if 25% of them are classics that would be quite a feat! While I wait for your next challenge blog, I’ve opted to veer off your 2015 Challenge to take on one from 2014 … Jamaica Inn — a mystery/suspense by Daphne du Maurier.

        As for Peggy. What a cool experience … Taft was an amazing man. The only President to also serve as supreme court justice.. Learned a ton about him on a trip to the Washington and visit to the Library of Congress a few years ago. He and his wife were instrumental in arranging for the Cherry Tree planting in Washington DC! My daughter picked up a book in the Children’s area of the Library and we all learned something! Eliza’s Cherry Trees.

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