A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic coming of age story set around the turn of the century in immigrant-heavy Brooklyn. It’s so much more than a coming of age story, though. This is the third time I’ve read this book, and like with most books I reread many times because I love them to pieces, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to review this book. So instead of writing a real review, I’m simply going to list out the things that I love so much about this book and encourage everyone to try it out!
1. Katie Rommely Nolan. Katie is the mother of the main character, Francie. She fell in love with a hopeless dreamer (Johnny Nolan) and spends most of her married life poor and working to keep her family alive. She scrubs flats in order to pay their rent. She knows how to stretch every cent and every bit of food they have. She keeps the children healthy and clean as best as she can. She loves her son, Neeley, more than Francie, but she tries very hard to be fair, though she’s not always successful.
I love Katie very much because she reminds me a lot of my own mother. Though my mom’s situation was very different from Katie’s, they have the same attitudes about a lot of things. My mom, like Katie, is tough, straightforward, blunt, and hardworking. There is no romance about her. Whatever romance she might have had when she was young wore off long before I was old enough to know about it. Reading about Katie is like getting to know my mother better, and it reminds me of my childhood (even though my childhood, again, was very different from Francie’s). Francie describes her as being made of “thin, invisible steel.” That’s such a perfect description.
2. Johnny Nolan. He should be easy to hate. Johnny’s a drunk, a drifter, an absolutely no-good provider for the family. But somehow, I can’t hate him. Before I read the book for the first time, Jason told me he liked the way Johnny was portrayed because normally alcoholics are painted completely black in books, and when children are involved there is always abuse and meanness. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not like that, though. Johnny can’t provide for his family, but he’s never once mean to them. He never hits his wife or his children. He tries to love them the best he knows how. And despite his excessive drinking, he’s not a bad person.
Take, for example, a passage from when he’s out walking with Francie and they encounter a prostitute.
“Was that a bad lady, Papa?” [Francie] asked eagerly.
“But she looked bad.”
“There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.”
To me, this showed Johnny’s fairness and understanding. Was he a good man? No, not really. But he wasn’t a bad man, either. He was just unfortunate, and a slave to his addictions and his dreams.
3. Currency. For much of the book, the Nolan family lives on a few dollars a week. Slowly, I got immersed in their world, learning the way money works the same way I would in another country with a foreign currency. I got used to Francie going to the butcher and the baker and paying with a penny or at most a nickel. When later there was mention of a $10/week salary, it felt enormous. When I heard of another character’s $10,000 yearly salary, it was like riches. Stepping back from the book, I think – wow, $10,000 is not that much. But in this book, it’s practically like being a millionaire, and Betty Smith did a great job wrapping me into this world so well that it felt rich before I stopped to think how little that is.
4. Brooklyn. I know Brooklyn’s not the same now, but I still wish I knew someone who knew Brooklyn well and could give me a tour when I’m next up in NYC.
5. The library scenes. There are scenes with the librarian both at the beginning and end of the book, and I loved the contrast. Actually, I’ll just include any scenes that are revisited near the end of the book, and how Francie deals with the people she interacted with as a child after she’s grown up.
6. She heard the word “oxygen.” I don’t want to spoil this scene for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but once you read it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s such a good, triumphant scene!
7. Lessons on humanity and compassion. I couldn’t give examples for every single truth Betty Smith wrote into this book. Every few pages, she demonstrates how some people learn compassion from their suffering and others learn to taunt those beneath them. When the children are taking junk to the junk man, other children yell “Rag picker!” at them, even though they just dropped off their own junk. An intern doctor at a clinic talks about how filthy and disgusting the poor children are, and his nurse, once a poor immigrant child herself, agrees with him. Children at school taunt the kids for having lice and being sent home from school, even if they themselves had the same problem the week before. There’s one quote from all this that in particular stands out to me:
They learned no compassion from their own anguish. Thus their suffering was wasted.
8. The passage of time. When I read this with my book club two years ago, one of the main complaints people had was the uneven passage of time. The early part, when Francie is 11 years old, takes up a huge chunk of the book. As she grows older, time passes faster, and months go by without any details about them. Everything comes together so fast. Five years will pass in the book in the same space as a month or two earlier on. Personally, I like this. At one point, Francie herself starts to notice how holidays don’t seem too far away anymore. She sees beyond a week in front of her. Time starts to move fast and things are changing. When she asks Johnny what’s happening, he feels her forehead with the back of his hand and tells her she has a bad case of “growing up.”
I remember being about that age and when I started thinking time was moving faster each year. I remember when I really gained awareness of time in general. Things moved and changed so fast, I couldn’t keep up. I was forced into maturity before I was ready. This is the way it happens as a child turns to a young adult, and I think Betty Smith’s integration of that impression into the text was magnificent. I didn’t mind that it made things feel uneven. I felt closer to the book for that imbalance. It felt honest.
9. All the Christmas scenes. Each Christmas scene is special, from the tree-throwing man to the gilded pennies. For some reason, even though this book takes place over many years and isn’t necessarily about Christmas, it feels like a Christmas book for me. Maybe it’s because it’s so hopeful, or because Christmas is such an important thematic element, a touchstone for each year. I don’t know. But for some reason, when I think about holiday books, this one immediately comes to mind, which is why I just read the book for the third time.
It’s a good book. It’s not perfect, but I am able to look past the things that would irritate me in another book because I love the story so much.
Note: Review date is only an approximate of when this book was read/reviewed in 2009.
Note: Originally read in August 2007, and once again after that (probably December 2007).