Wednesday 29 June 2011

Devouring Books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I'm not sure I've ever met a book that I wish I'd read when I was a little bit younger quite like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Primarily a tale of a young bookish girl growing up in early twentieth century Brooklyn, it reveals to us the lush inner life of our heroine, Francie, as she slowly sees changes in the world around her, and more importantly, in herself and what she feels and believes. Supported by some wonderfully drawn lesser characters (in length they are in the novel rather than in their personalities), Francie is able to grow and flourish as the novel progresses, and, by the end, I almost felt proud of her and how far she had come since the start of the story. This is what this novel does to you guys- makes you feel like a proud parent to a fictional character. Can you really ask for anything more from a novel?

I think it's pretty clear that I adored this book, and most of that was down to Francie. If there's a character out there that I can relate to more, than I haven't read that book yet, and I've read a whole lot of books. Her imagination, her sense of the beauty in things that other people might not think are beautiful, and above all her love of books and her wallowing, almost even hiding in them- I'm not a stranger to any of these things, and I was definitely a lot more like her when I was younger. Watching Francie grow up, then, was almost like watching myself grow up, feeling proud of her maturity almost like being proud of my own (ah, if only I was as mature as Francie is by the end of this book!) She is a fabulous character, and I hope that Smith is as immensely proud of her as I also am.

This is not to put down the other characters in the novel however, since the supporting cast of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is just as vividly drawn as Francie, and equally great. My personal favourites were Francie's Aunt Sissy, a promiscuous lady who is also basically the nicest person to have ever existed (at least in my brain!). A more crude reviewer might call her a 'tart with a heart', but I call her simply lovely, helpful, and extraordinarily human. I also adored Francie's father, an incorrigible drunk, but one who is always always striving to do better and to be a better person, however difficult that may be. This supporting cast really makes the novel what it is, as without the side stories that the family presents, we wouldn't be able to see as clearly how Francie becomes the person she does. Also, some of them are just purely and simply hilarious! (I'm not going to ruin anything for you, but just trust me on this one.)

It is my personal belief that novels cannot exist on grand sweeping statements (fabulous though they may  be) alone. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, fortunately, has a wonderful story, as well as giving us many valuable insights into the nature of life itself. Thus, we have things like this, on being truly alive:
"'Dear God' [Francie] 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 honourable 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.'"
 And this, on saying goodbye to something:
"The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, [Francie] thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything, as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day."
That last one is actually my favourite, because it strikes me as being so true- how quick we are to take everything for granted, until we are about to lose it, and then what we had immediately becomes the most wonderful thing that has ever been. It's essentially, I suppose, the equivalent of 'you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone', but stated so much more eloquently and beautifully.

I'm going to stop soon, although I could probably go on for days, but I just have to share one absolutely brilliant moment in the novel that illustrates how, even though society changes so much and so quickly, things are always essentially the same, because, let's face it, people are people. Towards the end of the novel, the US (finally!) joins World War One, and a frenzy of German baiting ensues, best displayed by this little chestnut:
"'The last time I asked for sauerkraut he chased me out of the store,' complained Neely.
'You've got to ask for Liberty cabbage now you dope,' said Francie."
Sound familiar, American readers?! May I remind you all of freedom fries, about 8 or 9 years ago?! This just struck me as utterly hilarious, and really an indication of how pathetic people can be in terms of patriotism. Very uncool, but also very funny.

There is so much about this novel that I haven't discussed; it's portrayal of poverty, why I don't really like Francie's mother even though she's probably the bravest character in the novel, or how much I love that there are, I swear, at least three Christmases in the book (this isn't just me right? I've always loved descriptions of Christmases and birthdays, and how other people celebrate them and what presents they get and things like that. It just pleases me!) But I think that these are all things that you have the right to discover and learn by yourself, and chances are you'll have very different favourite parts than me. But that's the way it's supposed to be! I just hope that you really do love it as much as me, because it has quickly made its way onto my favourite books list (that exists only in my brain!)

Note: I wish I could remember the blogger that wrote a review of this that I read and that inspired me to get it for my birthday, but I really can't. BUT whoever you are, if you're reading this, thank you, and I love you!!


  1. I read and reviewed this book in '09 and just loved it. I'm glad you did too! I remember something like the sauerkraut thing going on several years ago with french fries. Can't recall what "they" were wanting people to call them insteac, but it was pretty silly I remember.

  2. It's amazing, isn't it?! In America a few years back, you were meant to call french fries freedom fries, because France wouldn't join Bush's 'war on terror'... it was pretty ridiculous, especially to me since I'm English, and we just call them chips! Hehe

  3. I've never read this one, but it's been on my TBR stack for a long time. It sounds so great. I want to read it right now!

  4. Oh Jenn you really should, it's so wonderful! One of my favourite things I've read all year :)

  5. This is one of my favoritest books ever. :) Seriously, so many wonderful things to love. And this: "If there's a character out there that I can relate to more, than I haven't read that book yet, and I've read a whole lot of books." Sometimes I almost felt like the things happening to Francie were my own memories rather than someone else's story. Glad you liked it.