A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
I read this one after asking my wife to pick out another one of her favorites prior to going on a work trip. I didn’t know anything about besides that she liked it but overall I found it to be an engrossing story about a girl growing up in early 20th Century Brooklyn in a family just barely getting by.
The book primarily focuses on Francine Nolan, the oldest daughter in the Nolan family, whose father Johnny is an alcoholic who occasionally gets union work and most of the time is looking for work as a singer, and her mom Katie who cleans houses and keeps the family together and sane. Other main characters include brother Neeley, Aunt Sissy, and all her husbands she calls John.
Over the course of the book, we get background on Katie and Johnny’s parents, the birth of all of the Nolan kids, and the first sixteen years of Francine’s life. Although there’s not one main story arc across the novel, there are several recurring themes that go throughout. Francine is generally interested in education but is limited by her family’s finances; her mother favors her younger brother Neeley, her father tries to do good but often ends up failing; her Aunt Sissy uses loose morality or dishonesty to make things happen others can’t.
Francine has affection for everybody in her family, and the autobiographical subject matter makes it clear it’s coming from a genuine place through the author. Many of the events seem too genuine to be fictional as well, including the kids trying to win prizes for a penny in a rigged game, dodging Christmas trees, and tin can banks nailed on closet floors. The struggle to earn enough money to eat, pay for school and insurance is real for the family and continues throughout the book.
What I liked best about the book was the detail of the world Francine inhabits. Everything feels real and easy to relate to, despite the hundred ears that have passed since the book takes place. It didn’t feel like there was an emotional climax because Katie anchors the family with a survive and continue at all costs work ethic. Instead there’s almost an Ayn Rand-ian approach of Francine succeeding at all endeavors due to her intellect and inherent traits instilled in her by her mother. The pacing of the book is not for everybody, but there is a kind of universality in the family’s struggle that will appeal to most readers.