A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a quiet, gentle, understated and yet at the same time unexpectedly scathing at times book that offers a window (or a view from a fire escape, if you please) into a little corner of the world a century ago, and yet still has the power to resonate with readers of today. After all, the world has moved forward, yes, but the essential human soul remains the same, and the obstacles in human lives - poverty, inequality, cruelty, and blind self-righteousness - are in no danger of disappearing.
"The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts."
It's not easy to answer what this book is about, to answer it in a way that would manage to capture the heart and soul of this story. If you ask me, I think it's a story of people simply being people, the good-bad-and-ugly of humanity.
There are so many things coexisting in the pages of this not-that-long book. On one hand, it's a classic coming-of-age and loss-of-innocence tale centered around the experiences of a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. On another hand, it is a social commentary taking on the uglier parts of human lives and human nature - the parts that Francie was cautioned against writing about as they are quite 'sordid': poverty, vice, exploitation, intolerance. On yet another hand (yes, I'm running out of hands here) it's a story of American dream - hopeful and determined.
“I want to live for something. I don't want to live to get charity food to give me enough strength to go back to get more charity food.”
On a different hand, it is also a story of how American dream can be used exactly against the same people that it's supposed to inspire. On yet another hand (apparently my 'hands' example may as well involve an octopus) it is a chronicle of a struggling Brooklyn family with the love and resentment and strong ties that only the members of the family can try to understand. On some other hand, it's a story of what it meant to be a girl and then a woman in the world of a century ago in America. And, on yet another hand, it is an ode to Brooklyn that through the prism of this book appears to be a universe of its own.
It is also a story of opportunities lost and opportunities gained despite the odds. It's a story about the will to survive no matter what, about iron-clad will and determination, about hope despite the odds, despite being, for all intents and purposes, on the bottom of the barrel. It's a story about learning to love and respect and compromise and give up - and frequently all at the same time. It's a story about being able to open your eyes to the world around you as you grow up and learning to see this world for what it is, and accept some of it, and reject some, too. It has love and loss and pain and happiness and wonder and ugliness - all candidly and unapologetically presented to the readers allowing them to arrive at their own conclusions just as Francie Nolan has arrived at hers.
Apparently when this book was published in mid-1940s, it caused a wave of disappointment and disagreement with the subject matters it raised, the subject matters that some of the public, like the well-meaning but clearly clueless teacher Miss Garnder in this book, probably found too 'sordid' for their taste: the poverty, the pro-union message, the lack of condemnation of female sexuality, the alcoholism, the treatment of immigrants unfamiliar with their rights, the exploitation of the poor and weak ones by those in power - you name it. It seems there was too much of the social message presented with not enough of polishing it and coating it with the feel-good message.
"In a flash, she saw which way the wind blew; she saw it blew against children like Francie."
The part that probably resonated the most with me out of everything I mentioned, however, was the way Betty Smith describes the poverty of Francie's family and Francie's neighborhood ("... in the Nolan neighborhood, if you could prove you had been born in America, it was equivalent to a Mayflower standing" and where "Kids grow up quick in this neighborhood.") - the area populated mostly by immigrants not quite aware of their rights, selling their votes for the chance to survive another day, and slaving at their jobs just to survive another day in which they can go on slaving for pennies to survive. And yet the system - as well as the still-not-understood undershades of human psyche - instead of uniting these people in their hardships ends up somehow pitting them against each other.
"She had been in school but half a day when she knew that she would never be a teacher’s pet. That privilege was reserved for a small group of girls... girls with freshly curled hair, crisp clean pinafores and new silk hairbows. They were the children of the prosperous storekeepers of the neighborhood. Francie noticed how Miss Briggs, the teacher, beamed on them and seated them in the choicest places in the front row. These darlings were not made to share seats. Miss Briggs’s voice was gentle when she spoke to these fortune-favored few, and snarling when she spoke to the great crowd of unwashed."
You see, the poverty presented in this book, the poverty in which the Nolan family lives, is far from the innocent, idealistic, noble and 'cleansing' way it's often presented. No, this book does not fall into the pitfall of somehow glorifying poverty. The Nolans are decent people DESPITE their poverty and not in any way thanks to it - the message that is presented subtly but clearly through Francie's understanding that there's little point to it, that there's really nothing to be gained from it no matter how you can later justify it to yourself through the idea that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'¹.
Allow me to quote Terry Pratchett here:
"Remember - that which does not kill us can only make us stronger."
"And that which *does* kill us leaves us dead!"
And, of course, denigration of poor people and worship of money, as well as the stark gap between the rich and the poor in the American society did not go away a century after the events of this novel. Neither did the fact that if you live in a poor neighborhood and get an education there, you are at a disadvantage as compared to your peers (Francie tried to combat that by finding a way to attend a better school in a better area - but using the ways that would surely condemn her in the eyes of the general public had she done it now, like quite a few people try to). And the fact that as we continue to proclaim the benefits of Democracy (as Johnny Nolan did his whole short life) while poverty continues to run rampant and the rich continue to be rich is perhaps one of the saddest things that you take from reading this book.
"They think this is so good," she thought. "They think it’s good— the tree they got for nothing and their father playing up to them and the singing and the way the neighbors are happy. They think they’re mighty lucky that they’re living and that it’s Christmas again. They can’t see that we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren’t much good. Johnny and the children can’t see how pitiful it is that our neighbors have to make happiness out of this filth and dirt. My children must get out of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us."
Another part is the deconstruction of American Dream - to a point. On one hand, Francie and her mother Katie and her grandmother Mary all support the idea of education eventually being able to help you get out of the cycle of poverty. On the other hand, through Francie's eyes we see the flipside of this believe in American Dream - the shrugging off the problems of the poor by those who are a bit more well-to-do under the mistaken beliefs that (a) they understand exactly what the poor are going through (like Francie's teacher Miss Garnder 'understood' poverty because - oh the horror! - at some point in her life she lived on tea and toast for three days and her family did not always have a maid) and (b) assume that the only reason the poor stay poor is because they have to be lazy (again, like Miss Garnder, the well-meaning soul who nevertheless was in position of power to pass on her flawed beliefs to the impressionable young children she educated).
"But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
"I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
This book is simply written and slow-moving - but in an enchanting, engrossing way that allows the characters to shine through its pages. There's really little plot in the way we, modern readers, frequently think of such. Most of the book seems to be comprised of little vignettes connected to each other, placed to shed light on different aspects of the lives of the Nolans and the Rommelys, to present different edges of their personalities and to show the wider picture of the time and the neighborhood where they live. We get to experience Katie's determined strength, Johnny's unabashed hopefulness mixed with weakness, Sissy's love and disregard for arbitrary societal limitations, and Francie's curiosity and desire for life and learning.
"Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way."
And a word about Francie herself, of course. Yes, she is far from an ideal heroine. She is naive and impressionable, sometimes frustratingly so. She can be meek and allow others to take advantage of her and direct her life - to the point when we, readers from the time when women can vote and have achieved some resemblance of equality, start getting frustrated with her. But she has this insatiable curiosity for life and desire to rise above her low station in life, and inner backbone and character steel that she appears to have inherited from her mother Katie (Katie, who is a true cornerstone of this book, the source of its inner strength and resilience that allows the Nolans to have hope for the future) - all the traits that make the reader cheer for this quiet and yet determined young woman who will ultimately find out what's best for her in life while always remembering where she comes from.
"Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
I'm glad I read this book now and not back when I was a kid. Back then I would have judged so many characters harshly, seeing the world from a quite privileged perspective of a person who had the luxury of education and only experienced a few years of significant poverty that was followed by a reasonably comfortable life afterwards. Now, with a bit more life experience on my shoulders, I cannot help but adore the quiet heart of this story and the different shades of life and people that it portrays.
4.5 stars without a bit of hesitation.