Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.
Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Public Library 2022 Reading Challenge in the category of “A book that makes you feel hopeful for the future.” I don’t know why, but this one does.
It was pointed out that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing happens. There is no over-the-top drama involving sex, violence, or rock and roll. Instead, A Tree is a simple and honest story about what it means to be human. Harsh realities about poverty, crime, alcoholism, life, and death are not ignored or sugarcoated. I would argue that something does happen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A little girl comes of age. In the summer of 1912 Francie Nolan was a scrappy eleven year old. At the time, her best friend was a tree that seemed to like poor people. By the end of the story, Francie has lost her father, gained a baby sister, managed to find her way to college, and started to date. It is a story of hope.
One of my favorite moments was when Francie understands for the first time she can read and the fact she would never be lonely again. Books would be her companions for any circumstance. Another favorite scene was when Francie graduates and she receives roses from her deceased daddy. It broke my heart.
Confessional: The scene when Katie is playing the piano with the children bothered me. Neely starts to sign and it is noted his voice is starting to change. It is then that Francie remarks, “You know what Mama would say if she were sitting here now?” Where did she go? She was just playing the piano. I think Smith meant Johnny. Johnny was the one who was missing from the scene.
Signs of the times, “He was a boy, he handled the money.” The candy store was a boys store and Francie had to wait outside while her brother bought her candy.
Phrasing I adored, “ground-down poor” and “helpless relaxation.”
Author fact: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has such clarity it is impossible to ignore its autobiographical nature. Rumor has it, Smith originally wrote the story as a memoir but her publishers urged her to fictionalize it to reach a wider audience. Could they not handle the truth?
Book trivia: My edition had a foreword by Anna Quinlan. She compared Francie to Jo March, Betsy Ray, and Anne of Green Gables. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also published in an Armed Services edition. The wartime copy was specially sized to fit in a soldier’s rucksack.
Playlist: because Francie’s father is a singing waiter there were lots of great tunes mentioned in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There are Smiles That Make You Happy,” At the Darkstrutters’ Ball,” “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home,” “My Wild Rose,” “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “You’ll find Old Dixieland in France,” There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Time,” Ted Lewis’s “For When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (a song I can remember my mother singing while she vacuumed), “Molly Malone,” “The Soldier’s Chorus,” “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away for You,” “Ave Maria,” “Beautiful Blue Danube,” “At the Devil’s Ball,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” “Kerry Dancers,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” Harrigan, That’s Me,” “The River Shannon,” “Holy Night,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Schubert Serenade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” Handle’s “Largo,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Verdi, Walter Wildflower, “O, Sole Mio,” “Some Sunday Morning,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Silent night,” “Annie Laurie,” “Last Rose of Summer,” “Sweet Adeline,” “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “A Shanty in Shantytown,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” “Dear Old Girl,” ” I’m Sorry I made You Cry,” “Over There,” “K-K-Katy,” “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” “Mother Macree,” and “The Band Played On.”
Nancy said: Pearl called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a “classic coming-of-age” story.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Girls Growing Up” (p 101).