Coming off of grim dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, we all decided to read something sweeter for April and May. Confession: I nominated this book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and didn’t realize how long it was (500+ pages) so we extended the book club by a month (hence no post at the end of April).
I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn several years ago and remember being quietly moved by it. I was eager to revisit it and find out if the feeling was still true. It was.
This is Betty Smith’s first and most famous novel, largely based on her own experience growing up in a poor immigrant family, after the turn of the 20th century but before World War I. The book is written in third person but focuses mainly on the main character, Francie, and secondly on her family, the Nolans: mother Katie, father Johnny, and brother Neely. The premise of following along as an 11-to-17 year old girl grows up in desperate poverty sounds quite grim, but Francie’s rich inner world and constant childlike-but-wise observations on the world around her are constantly charming and heartwarming. In this way, we can all take a lesson from this and reflect on the beautiful in the everyday.
“Then I’ve been drunk, too,” admitted Francie.
“No. Last spring, in McCarren’s Park, I saw a tulip for the first time in my life.”
The thing I liked most about the writing in this book is how often Smith would lay out the story or moment, and then at the end let us enter into the character’s reflection at the end. She would summarize dinner and the evening routine in the Nolan household, maybe one without enough food to go around, and then slip in something poignant like Katie thinking to herself, “It’s a hard and bitter world. They’ve got to live in it. Let them get hardened young to take care of themselves.” Peeking into the inner lives of the characters, even side characters from time to time, connected me more to each of them and reminds me that we all aspire to be more and we have inner lives that only some of us bring to daylight.
As the book progresses, it does so slowly at times, and rapidly at times, just how I felt as I grew up. And, although the world in the book was 100 years ago, there are so many relatable everyday moments. There are still those universally relatable moments—sibling jealousy, the struggle of a horrible teacher, the worries about not fitting in at a new job. I’m sure I will read this again every few years to remind me that every life is a journey, even if it doesn’t seem to have a straight direction, and that I should pause and reflect on the small things in my life from time to time.
“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful. But because there are so many, you just can’t see how beautiful it really is.”
As always, leave your comments below or link me to your review if you’ve already posted it on Goodreads or Amazon! I would love to read your take!
Last night we held our monthly discussion group on facebook. I love setting aside time to hear other perspectives on themes and events in a book that was fresh in our minds. If you’d like to join us over there (normally the last Tuesday of the month), message me on facebook to be added.
For June, our group selected by vote Three Wishes by the ubiquitous Liane Moriarty. I’ve never read anything by this author but she is wildly popular, so I’m sure it will be good. Please join along with me, Libby, and the rest of our group as we read together.