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.
I 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.