A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Rating: ★★★★★// Instantly added to my all-time favorite list!
Favorite Line: “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”
“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”
A professor in a writing class once told me that a great story is impossible to summarize, and that’s what we have here with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. There aren’t cliff hangers or nail-biters that move the plot along, nor is their a crucial climax that signifies the change in the story, there is just the story–the beautiful, heartbreaking, poetic, hilarious, terrifying, and joyful story that makes up the life of Francie Nolan, the Brooklyn girl who never stops living.
This book did a number on me emotionally. I felt such a strong love and relationship with every main character in a book that you would think that they were apart of my own family. Smith describes and humanizes them so well, it is impossible for me to doubt their actual existence. I firmly believe the Nolan family lived exactly as Smith said they did, and Francie Nolan, the daughter of Katie and Johnny, found her place among the stars.
Francie was a loner for most of her life. This was not because she was too weird or too anti-social, but mostly because she chose to be alone. Growing up she had few friends, aside from her brother, her aunt Sissy, and the one little girl who she went to confession with, but this does not stop her from being so full of life. She wants to know, see, and experience everything. She is determined and hard set on her goals (this is the Katie in her), and not once does she see her poverty as something that will stop her from reaching her goals (this is the Johnny in her).
“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.”
Francie is very well-read, even at a young age, which is partially due to her goal to read every book in the library, and partially because of her mother’s rule that she and her brother had to read a page of Shakespeare and a page of The Bible every night. It’s through these books that she found her friends and allies. Her love of reading gave her the means and desire to not only excel in school and further her education as long as she could, but also in her work she did after school.
Francie’s relationship with her parents is a major theme in this novel. Francie adores her father–to her Johnny hung the moon and every night he brought it’s light down to her window himself. He is her comforter, her confidant, her biggest fan, her ally, and her hero–she, to him, was his pride and joy. She spent every moment she could with her father, even waiting up late into the night to greet him when he sauntered up the stairs singing an Irish tune.
“She had heard Papa sing so many songs about the heart; the heart that was breaking – was aching – was dancing -was heavy laden – that leaped for joy – that was heavy in sorrow – that turned over – that stood still. She really believed the heart actually did those things.”
Her relationship with her mother was different. They seemed not to understand each other they way they both desired to be understood. Katie had a tough love approach to Francie, but from an outside point of view we see her tactics as true and just, but to a young girl, we can see how they were devastating to Francie. If Smith had decided to only have the story from Francie’s point-of-view, the reader probably wouldn’t give Katie the praise she deserves, and likewise if it had been only from Katie’s point-of-view Francie would probably seem like an ungrateful little girl, but thankfully Smith gave us insight to both characters and we see that they would do anything for each other, and we clearly see how similar they really are.
“And that’s where the whole trouble is. We’re too much alike to understand each other because we don’t even understand our own selves.”
To say this book is about Francie Nolan is only mostly true, but really it is about the family of Johnny and Katie Nolan. Yes, Francie is the main character, but the story offers so much depth into the lives of Johnny and Katie as well, that, without much editing, the story could have shifted to have either of them, especially Katie, as the main character. Johnny and Katie have a beautiful and frustrating love. They met young and even though Johnny was dating her best friend at the time, Katie was determined to marry him–so she did. They are exact opposites and this was the cause for so many of their troubles, but it was also the cause for so much of their joy.
“Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well.”
Due to Johnny’s bad luck, inability to hold a solid job, drinking, and having a dreamer’s mentality, Katie was left with the task of being the, at most times, sole provider for their small family. They were dirt poor, and Johnny inability to provide for the family causes resentment in the book and in the mind of the reader. It’s sometimes hard to sympathize with him and you want him to act more like Katie, to get his act together and be a man. But then he comes into their small apartment singing “Molly Malone” and his booming voice lifts the spirits of the family and you see Katie fall in love with him all over again. I realized that while it wouldn’t have hurt for him to make a few more dollars than he did, if he had been just like Katie, the happiness of the family would ultimately suffer.
“You married him. There was something about him that caught your heart. Hang on to that and forget the rest.”
Katie is the rock that holds the family together and keeps them alive, Johnny is the air they breath that lifts them above the poverty they live in.
Francie’s world is full of so many other characters that shape her life and whose life is shaped by her. Her brother Neeley is her closest friend, her aunt Sissy is her example of confidence and independence, her neighbors, the librarian, shopkeepers, and her teachers influence her outlook in life more than they could imagine. This book is more than just a “coming-of-age” novel; it’s a coming-to-life novel, and Francie, the tree growing up through the concrete, is the perfect spokeswoman for it.
I’m going to end with a quote from Francie that I found particularly profound, especially because she was a young girl at the time. Francie had a beautiful love for God and His world, but with religion she went back and forth in fits of love and rage, but at one point she states her creed and declares her love for religion and childlike faith, and whether or not you are religious, it’s hard to deny the beauty in her revelation.
“It’s a beautiful religion and I wish I understood it more. No, I don’t want to understand it all. It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery. Sometimes I say I don’t believe in God and Jesus and Mary. I’m a bad Catholic because I miss mass once in a while and I grumble when, at confession, I get a heavy penance for something I couldn’t help doing. But good or bad, I am a Catholic and I’ll never be anything else.
Of course, I didn’t ask to be born Catholic, no more than I asked to be born American. But I’m glad it turned out that I’m both these things.”