Rating: 4/5 stars.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn revolves around Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in New York. The plot of this novel does not drift from event to event, at least not in a way that fits standard plot summary – rather, it flows like fine water, split into five sections that match the stages of Francie’s coming of age. With warm prose Betty Smith addresses themes such as poverty, loss of innocence, and gender roles in a book she claims to have written without any intended message for society.
I loved two aspects of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of which was experiencing Francie mature from a tiny girl to a mature woman. In a tone similar to Harper Lee’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, Smith creates a bridge from us to Francie, formed with the girl’s isolation from her peers, her connection to the written word, and her steely yet sensitive nature. While Francie has her dark times, I could not help but root for her throughout the novel and clench at my chest when difficulties arose. Her observant nature allows us to view the deeper dynamics behind her family relationships as well as her immediate environment.
These two visiting teachers were the gold and silver sun-splash in the great muddy river of school days, days made up of dreary hours in which Teacher made her pupils sit rigid with their hands folded behind their back while she read a novel hidden in her lap. If all the teachers had been like Miss Bernstone and Mr. Morton, Francie would have known plain what heaven was. But it was just as well. There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.
But all of the characters – well, almost all of them, besides maybe Mr. McShane – possessed qualities in shades of grey. Johnny’s drunkenness and Sissy’s flirtatiousness hurt other characters, yet they did not detract from how real or loveable Johnny and Sissy were themselves. The complexity of these characters and the themes they stood for in regard to this time period extended A Tree Grows in Brooklyn beyond just another bildungsroman. Even Katie, Francie’s cold and hardened mother, forced me to stop and think about the difficulties and joys of parenthood.
“It’s come at last,” she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. When there wasn’t enough food in the house you pretended that you weren’t hungry so they could have more. In the cold of a winter’s night you got up and put your blanket on their bed so they wouldn’t be cold. You’d kill anyone who tried to harm them – I tried my best to kill that man in the hallway. Then one sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spare them.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy coming of age stories, historical fiction, or fans of To Kill a Mockingbird. While not a fast-paced story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will stay with in your heart for a long time.