When you write a blog about reading, people often come to you with suggestions about what books would make good fodder for your blog posts. People mean well and I appreciate their enthusiasm both for reading and the blog itself. No one has been a more diligent campaigner for a book than my friend Alysia. For many years she advocated A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith with relentless passion and sentimentality for a book which she views as a beloved companion. Needless to say, I was worried that I wouldn't like it for fear of her disappointment in my reaction.
It turns out that I didn't worry for long. The book is the coming of age story of Francie Nolan, an impoverished girl living in Brooklyn just prior to WWI. Her family includes her father Johnny, an alcoholic singing waiter, and his long-suffering wife, Katie. The family is rounded out by her younger brother Neeley who manages to inherit the best qualities of both parents. Throughout the story, there emerges many other singular characters that people Francie's community, so many that it is difficult to mention them all. These characters emerge through a series of of short vignettes which make up the story as a whole. It is an atypical plot structure which allows the reader to learn about Francie's life through the stories of her family and neighborhood. Therefore, unlike other books that have discussed in my blog, the plot cannot be summed up within a few sentences and proves to make for a more rewarding reading experience.
I feel like I understand what it meant to be a girl growing up poor in Brooklyn in that period of time, without the romanticism that usually colours the pages of coming of age stories. Due to Johnny's personal foibles, the family lives in a crushing poverty which is constantly in the background of their lives like another character. Alysia makes the astute point, that though the family lives on very little, there isn't an overwhelming sense of despair. The kids have happy moments where they manage to have the unconventional brand of fun that poor children often experience, full of imagination. Though the subject matter is serious, and I'm not sure how I would have reacted to the book had I read it at another stage in my life, but there is not the unrelenting melancholy of similar works.
Though I can't get into what happens in the book in any sort of detail (because I'd be writing all day), it does tackle such controversial topics like premarital sex, infertility, and the general complexity of romantic love. It delves into issues that many coming of age stories of this time period gloss over and author Anna Quindlen effectively makes this argument in the introduction to the edition that I read. She draws interesting parallels between this book and Little Women, a childhood favourite of many readers. Quindlen asserts that Smith`s account differs from Louisa May Alcott`s tale because the Nolan family dwells in a more gritty realism than the noble poverty of the March family. I see the truth of Quindlen`s observations, and though I love both books, I can relate more to Francie`s childhood than the experiences of Jo March and company.
I would heartily recommend that more girls read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and would like to see it reach the same sentimental literary space that other books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables occupy. Because Alysia is right, as usual.