Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: Perennial Classics
Publishing Date: 1998
Number of Pages: 483 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman, Autobiographical
The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
Every so often, writers go back to where they started in order to come up with the work of their life. This could be said of Betty Smith and her magnum opus, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Often considered as one of the best American works of the 20th century, it is a highly praised classic which earned numerous accolades over the years. This is the very reason why I was euphoric when I was able to cop a copy of the book; it was a challenge finding a copy of the book. Unable to contain the anticipation, I included the book in My 2018 Top 20 Reading List.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a semi-autobiographical work relating Betty Smith’s experiences while growing up in the hinterlands of Brooklyn, New York City in the early 20th century. The story’s main protagonist is Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan who was born to an impoverished family. The story begun when Francie was already eleven-year-old and slowly progresses until she reaches the age of twenty. While growing up, Francie encountered numerous stumbling blocks which hampered her from reaching her dream. Will she let these obstacles stop her from achieving her dream?
“I know that’s what people say– you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. Oh, you’ll be happy again, never fear. But you won’t forget. Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him.” ~ Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
What stood out for me in Smith’s work is its philosophical aspect. While growing up, Francie has encountered numerous quandaries about religion and life in general. Her curiosity made her question nearly everything about life. Such philosophical nuances are common in most bildungsroman novels. These nuances make readers reflect. More importantly, the profoundness of these messages made the book easier to understand and appreciate. This is one of the aspects of the book that make it soar. It mirrors the curiosity we all held when we were growing up.
Francie’s relationship with both her parents is one of the centrifugal themes in the story. The glaring disparity on her relationship with her father and mother is underlined all throughout the narrative. She is treasured by her father while her mother feels burdened by her daughter’s presence. Nevertheless, Francie adored both of her parents. For a child her age, she possessed a sense if maturity that easily accepted the reality and circumstances gripping her and her family. The maturity was not forced and poured in naturally probably because of these circumstances.
As a coming-of-age novel, the novel touches base on a myriad of subjects. Its highest accomplishment is its overwhelming highlight on the need for one’s resilience especially in surviving an oppressive environment. In Francie, Betty Smith personified tenacity at such a tender age. It is a story of how to toughen up and mature quickly in a troubled environment. It is a story of resilience and willpower on overcoming the disadvantages of life. Even the title of the book is an allusion to this resilience. The tree is an allusion to the Tree of Heaven, a specie of tree which can flourish even in the inner city.
On a more personal perspective, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s message will resonate to the younger minds of today. Younger people tend to get discouraged easily – at the first instance of losing, they immediately give up. They are easily deflated by their circumstances and their environment. They have a difficult time converting their disadvantages into advantages because they wallow in the quagmires of their miseries. Betty Smith, through Francie, shines as the quintessence of fighting through the odds.
“She had become accustomed to being lonely. She was used to walking alone and to being considered ‘different.’ She did not suffer too much.” ~ Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Due to its take on filial relationships, the book became dual perspective – that of Francie and that of her mother. The disparity in their perspectives provided the book a different complexion, making it more engaging. It showed the struggles of a mother who tried to love her daughter whom she resented. In contrast, the story portrayed how a daughter fought to win her mother’s favor. This is reminiscent of an old observation I have often heard. Daughters tend to be closer to their fathers while sons tend to be closer to their mothers, hence the old phrase, mama’s boy. On further scrutiny, this aspect of the story underlined Francie’s steely determination to overcome every disadvantage.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn depicted the other reality of the widely perceived American Dream. It showed the squalid side of this proverbial dream which everyone yearns for. It is not always sugar and spice and everything nice. It appropriately depicted the challenges of raising a family in America, including the unsavory sides. In particular, it highlighted widespread social issues that hound the country such as unemployment and alcoholism.
Another subject that was extensively portrayed in the book is family and motherhood. In three sisters, it showed the cruelty of fate. One sister keeps getting pregnant but constantly and prematurely loses her babies because of the notion that she didn’t want them. Another sister badly wanted children but could never get pregnant no matter what she does. The last one is caught in the middle – she had a son and a daughter. In spite of these contrasts, their family always stuck together.
Francie and her mother are the primary characters in the story. They were well developed and the readers could easily relate to their respective stories. However, I had a serious issue with the story’s pace. For the most part, I had a difficulty establishing a harmonic reading pace. Overall, the pace was sporadic – there were points in the story that it felt like it was all over the place. The story slows down abruptly then it speeds up before slowing down again. The lack of a smooth flow hampered my appreciation for the story.
“Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and to scream out, and even to suffer that terrible pain, than to just be… safe. At least she knows she’s living.” ~ Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
For all its fault, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn shines because of the profoundness of its message. It is a handbook on how to survive this challenging world. Although it depicted only a certain portion of the author’s life, it nevertheless spoke volumes. It is about finding the strength within in order to overcome challenges and disadvantages in life. Smith poignantly shared her story without resentment and bitterness but with objectivity. If Betty Smith was able to survive and become successful, then we most probably all can!
Recommended for readers who are seeking inspirational reads, those who are looking for stories that will keep them pressing on harder in achieving their dreams, those who like autobiographical works, those who enjoy coming-of-age stories, those who want to read books on mother-daughter relationship, and those who like to read about the American Dream.
Not recommended for readers who like reading with a particular and rhythmic pace, those who have no taste in gloomy and bleak stories, and those who dislike coming-of-age stories.
About the Author
(Photy by Wikipedia) Betty Smith was born Elisabeth Lillian Wehner on December 15, 1896 in Brooklyn, New York City to a first generation German-American family and is the oldest of three siblings.
When she was young, Smith’s family moved around several times before eventually settling down in a tenement at the top floor of 702 Grand Street. Her last address also served as the basis for her magnum opus, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith honed her interest in reading in the then-new public library on nearby Leonard Street.
Smith was unable to complete her high school due to her elopement with her husband, George H.E. Smith. Nevertheless, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor allowed her to enroll in classes. At the university, Smith honed her skills in journalism, literature, writing and drama. Following her separation with her husband in 1933, Smith pursued her drama studies at Yale University but she had to stop due to financial considerations.
After moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Smith begun working on her first novel which originally bore the title They Lived in Brooklyn. It was rejected by several publishers before it earned the nod of Harper and Brothers. In 1943, the book was eventually published with the title A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She would go on to publish three more works: Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958) and Joy in the Morning (1963). Smith was also known for her works as a dramatist.
At the age of 75, Betty Smith died of pneumonia on January 17, 1972 in Shelton, Connecticut.