|A Tree Grows in Brooklyn|
by Betty Smith
"A profoundly moving novel, and an honest and true one. It cuts right to the heart of life ... If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you will deny yourself a rich experience ... It is a poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships. The Nolans lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919 ... Their daughter Francie and their son Neeley knew more than their fair share of the privations and sufferings that are the lot of a great city's poor. Primarily this is Francie's book. She is a superb feat of characterization, an imaginative, alert, resourceful child. And Francie's growing up and beginnings of wisdom are the substance of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. "
This book was amazing, yet I didn't really enjoy reading it. It made me think, I learned from it, I went through a gamut of emotions while reading it. Actually, no, I didn't go through a gamut of emotions, I experienced pretty much just one emotion - sadness and depression (oops, that is 2 emotions). I don't like 400+ pages of sadness and depression, so I really didn't like reading this book. Does that mean it is not amazing? No. It proves the author's stunning ability to make me feel the pain that the characters were feeling. Many people have compared this book to Little Women , but that is like comparing apples to oranges. There was always hope and love and laughter in Little Women , even through their hard times. Here there was starvation, squalor, loss and burned dreams. Oh, if only Francie could have had a Marmee! But Katie could never have been a Marmee, even if she had loved Francie as much as she loved Neeley, because her life was one big never-ending cycle of drudgery and disappointment. How did those people living in the tenements survive? And yet, they were tenacious, hard-working, tough as nails and full of pride. I couldn't help but think of how our welfare system seems to have killed those traits in people. Francie and her family would have rather starved than accept "charity" for work they didn't do. One of the parts of the book that stuck with me the most was Francie describing standing in line to buy stale bread. 6 loaves of stale bread fed the family for a week, and "what amazing things Katie could make from it!". There is a page and a half describing the suppers made from the loaves of stale bread.
Another section that resonated with me was Francie's visit to the library. She read a book a day and was determined to read every book in the library, so she started with author's whose last name began with A, and was up to "Brown". On Saturdays Francie would get her alphabetical book, but then treat herself with another book. She would always ask the librarian to suggest a good book for a girl. Without bothering to look up, the librarian would ask the age of the girl and Francie would say her age, which was 11 at the time.
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child's face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow.
The librarian would then hand her one of two books as the only ones she would recommend for this poor, starved little piece of humanity. When Francie went back many years later and asked for a recommendation for an 11 year old girl, the same woman handed her one of the same books. As a middle school librarian who loves books and who loves my students, this woman's behavior was horrific to me. What a difference she could have made in that little girl's life! In case someone thinks I have forgotten that this is a work of fiction, I have not. However, I think that the librarian was portrayed accurately for that time and that location.
I read this book because I had just had some 6th grade classes in the library discussing "classics", and this was one of the books on my children's classics list that I had never read. I'm not quite sure why this would be classified as a "children's" classic when it deals with many and varied adult issues. As a parent, I would never have let my 6th grader read this book. High school - yes, but it is pretty gritty for middle schoolers.
While I can't say I enjoyed this book, I will say that it made a huge impression on me and made me very appreciative of the things I have and the ease of my life. There is a Tenement Museum in NYC that I would like to visit now that I have read about life in them.
Areas of concern:
*The sexual content is quite high. There is an aunt who is a "bad" girl and sleeps around with all sorts of men. There is a child sexual predator on the loose and there is a pretty graphic description when he gets his hands on the main character. Childbirth and breastfeeding are thoroughly discussed. There are some crude and vulgar references towards body parts and sex.
*Oh, so politically incorrect! There are slang terms and slurs against Jews, Italians, Irish... It is a true representation of the time and location, but it could be offensive to some.
*A handful of cuss words.
*The sadness and complete depressive tone of the whole book, with really very little sense of hope or redemption, could be disturbing for many (including me).