Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith

When I saw this book at my September book club, my first reaction was how thick it was.  It was nearly 500 pages!  As of yesterday, I was only 150 pages into it, so the past two days have been a whirlwind of flipping pages and ignoring my kids (to a degree).  My 3-year-old's encounter today with an inky stamp left her looking like Ronald McDonald.  Mom's a book addict and hates going to book club with the book unfinished:  guilty as charged.

This title is one I have always heard of, but knew nothing about.  It's the story about little Francie Nolan, a girl who grows up in the slums of Brooklyn, collecting gum wrappers and other rubbish off the streets to trade in for pennies to put in a little tin can bank hammered into the floor of the closet.  The story is largely biographical of Betty Smith.  It follows Francie starting at age 11, and following up through her 16th birthday, shortly after the start of WWI.  I adored the glimpses into life of the Nolan family, despite their constant hardships.  Franice's mother, Katie, had to clean houses to earn their rent, and when her father, Johnny, happened to get a gig as a singing waiter, there was sometimes enough to eat.  But Johnny was an alchoholic and undependable for steady income.  You'll meet Francie's eccentric Aunt Sissy, as well as other Nolan and Rommely family members who probably act a lot like people you're related to.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is more than a "coming of age" story.  It's a snatch of American history, a story still touching readers 70 years later.  I appreciated the window into Francie's life from nearly 100 years ago.  So much has changed, but so much has remained constant.  I guess when it was first published in 1943 it was considered scandalous, but those "shady" aspects of the book are something I can relate to, because reading these passages echo of controversies my generation sees every day.   Not only could the story be eye-opening to the past and still feel familiar, Smith's writing style is simply classic.  Her gift of story-telling pulls in the reader.  It was comfortable, humorous, heart-breaking.

I told myself I was going to make note of passages as I read this one.  The writing was so lyrical and pictorial I wanted to remember it.  But it was a library book and I read it so fast, that I only wrote down two passages.  So, here they are, two token lines to represent the heart of this treasured book.

"Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger.  It might be said that she, too, was doomed.  Her life, too was over before it began.  But there the similarity ended.  Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it.  Katie wouldn't accept it.  She started a new life where her old one left off" (97).

"'You married him.  There was something about him that caught your heart.  Hang on to that and forget the rest'" (102).

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