A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Our staff book discussion this month was in the category of bestseller and the leader of the pack decided to reach back in time a select one a huge success from 1943:  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  Having never read this title, I plunged in with eager glee because this one had been on my lifelong TBR list.

The first thing I had to do in attempting this rather long work was to get used to the style.  My initial reaction was that the book was not all that well written but I think that was more me not getting the episodic nature of the narrative voice than a lack of skill on the part of the author.  My other issue was tone:  while there is at times a Pollyanna-like whimsy to the tale that is counterbalance by sheer brutality in both the behavior of some characters and the circumstances that they are place in.

The lead character in this novel is Francie Nolan who begins the work as an eleven-year-old in a poverty stricken family led by an alcoholic but well meaning father.  From there we learn about her school days, her neighborhood and her coming of age.  More importantly, we learn about her relationship with her father, her strict mother and her younger brother.  Each one of these family members has an impact on her life and the choices that she makes.

To head back to the tone issue, the contrasts between finding joy in the simplest things is contrasted with the devastating effects of no hope.  The dignity that Francie maintains is impressive while she is not shy about showing us her worst decisions as well.  Eventually for me, tone won out over plot and I stuck with this novel all the way to the end–perhaps just to find out how it would all end.

I believe this is still an assigned reading in some high school although I wonder about how any contemporary young person would approach this today after having been inundated with television families and contemporary movies about their contemporary peers doing contemporary things in today’s world.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

3 Comments on "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

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  1. merrittja@myjdl.com' Jackie says:

    This was the first “adult” novel that I read so it holds a special place in my memory. Her next novel, Joy in the Morning, is also very good- not really a sequel but based on her life as Tree was. Her other novels, Maggie Now and Tomorrow Will Be Better, are rather depressing with less-than-satisfying endings.

  2. jenniferkalletta@gmail.com' Jennifer says:

    After reading your review, I want to re-read “A Tree.” I remember is fondly from middle school; I saw myself as Francie, escaping the realities of my world through reading. I do not remember the tone being too light to compensate for the harshness of Francie’s life. Instead, I saw the author taping into the hope that Francie felt that the bad parts of her life were only temporary.

  3. judya@northsld.org' Judy Anderson says:

    Contemporary young people still love alcoholic fathers who fail to protect them. Still wonder if very strict mothers actually love them. Still use books to escape and to catch glimpses of a better way to live…Francie lives on.

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