Thank you to Harper Perennial for the free copy of this book in support of my readalong.
“Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”
There are books you read at just the right time in your life, even if you might feel you are late in finding them. But when you do, you savor every moment you spend with the people in that book. The nostalgia you experience, the innocence and simplicity of childhood. You cheer when something good happens, but feel delirious with remorse at the difficult times, and yet, you wouldn’t change a single thing about your experience with the book. Some of us might even say that about our own life. Through the eyes of Francie Nolan, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a book I can understand based on my experience, and why it’s loved by many. I can see myself reading this again and it’s been moved to my favorites list.
In the foreword by Anna Quindlen, she describes the book as “a story about what it means to be a human.” She goes on further to say, “the themes are farther-reaching: the fabric of family, the limits of love, the loss of innocence, and the birth of knowledge.” Although I didn’t read this until after I finished the book, because introductions and forewards typically contain spoilers. If I’ve never read the book, I don’t want to know until I know, which is exactly the moment when I read that happening within the pages of the book.
“An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.”
We become acquainted with young Francie living in Brooklyn, New York, in the tenement homes in 1912. We see life through her eyes, her neighborhood, her neighbors, her library, her family. The unhurried structure of life unfolds in the simple, unworried way, which from the perspective of a child, adds an innocence to the adult problems her mother, Katie and father, Johnny deal with everyday.
Young and beautiful Katie works hard scrubbing floors to take care of her family and Johnny is a singing waiter but spends much time getting drunk. But surprisingly, you don’t feel anomisity towards Johnny for his drinking problem. You see him through Francie’s eyes, a father who loves and understands her. Francie acknowledges that Johnny loves her best and Katie loves her brother Neely best.
When the book flashes back to the beginning of Johnny and Katie’s relationship, their hurried courtship and marriage, that is when we begin to understand more about each one of them and their backgrounds.
“The Rommelys ran to women of strong personalities. The Nolans ran to weak and talented men. Johnny’s family was dying out. The Nolan men grew handsomer, weaker and more beguiling with each generation. They had a way of falling in love but of ducking marriage. That was the main reason why they were dying out.”
Katie comes from a long line of strong Austrian women, and Johnny, from an Irish lineage of talented and handsome men. Although Katie loves Johnny, he’s buckling under the pressure of supporting his family. After the birth of Francie, he loses his job as a janitor and this seems to be the beginning of a downward spiral for Johnny. Johnny loves his family, it’s evident in the moments we see him try so hard to stay sober, his interactions with Francie, the tender moments with Katie. Johnny feels stunted by the sudden enormity of adult responsibilities; he seems to be overwhelmed by life. His dreams are simply dreams. There is no time to indulge in them, but as a young man, coming to terms with that versus his everyday reality are blurred, becoming even more so, as Johnny turns to alcoholism as a temporary escape. Throughout all of this, Katie’s determination to take care of the kids and Johnny never waver. Although she complains about his drinking, Katie loves him and tries her best to shield the children from the stigma attached to their father’s drinking.
Katie’s mother, Mary, advises her on how she as a mother can save her children from the plagues of poverty through education, sacrifice and saving. Mary’s background as an immigrant influenced the way she raised her girls and in hindsight, her determination to help her girls avoid those same mistakes as young mothers is reflected in the advice she gives.
“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.”
It’s not surprising that Katie follows her mom’s advice and in Francie, a love for reading and writing blossom. Francie finds solace in books and in another tangible way, you feel a kinship to Francie. I couldn’t help but think about my own escapism with reading as a child–quietly sitting in a book or cranny at my grandmother’s house reading while my cousins antagonized me about going outside to play. Or the school book fairs in which I’d beg my mother for a few dollars to buy at least one book, “because please mom, I promise I won’t EVER ask again for anything else in my whole life,” and those classroom library visits. I can’t forget the memories of my aunt taking my cousin and I to the local public library to check out as many books we each were allowed, for reading during summer school breaks.
“Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world.”
There was another moment I loved, when Francie goes into a little store, where she falls in love with all the beautiful tins of tea, coffee and spices. As a child we are mesmerized by the simple things and can easily find beauty within. But later in life, we see through the colored lens of experience, of living, which can cause us to only see what’s wrong. Part of growing up and maturing is understanding that nothing and no one, including yourself, stays the same. It also means but not allowing difficulties to embitter us to a point where we can’t see the possibilities outside of those moments, beyond our own experiences.
“You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”
I can’t conclude without saying a little about Aunt Sissy, Francie’s aunt, her mother’s sister. Aunt Sissy charts her own course in life and although she isn’t educated, she’s a champion in life and love. She’s a hero for Francie throughout the book and I couldn’t help but think about who represented Aunt Sissy in my life at Francie’s age. Everyone needs an Aunt Sissy and if you’ve read this book you know what I mean.
The writing is beautiful and the wisdom of living is scattered throughout the pages of this book. The dynamics of family, culture, heritage, the pulse of one’s neighborhood; all of these things made me feel like I really got to know Francie and her family. I got a sense of what the tenements of Brooklyn felt like in the early 1900s and how many people, like Francie and her family, did their best in the face of poverty to make ends meet. But there’s more than that. There is much that happens in the pages of this book when it comes to life, especially from the perspective of a young person, like Francie, growing up and coming of age in a world filled with things you don’t necessarily understand but come to view differently as you survive, or simply stated, live life.
This book is filled with moments of living and cannot easily be summarized; it wouldn’t be right or fair for me to color your experience with Francie and her family. I’ve been trying for 2 months already and decided to just share a few of the moments and the people I enjoyed. This quote is from a piece, Fall in Love with Life by Betty Smith that appeared in This Week magazine, included in the extras section in the back of the book. I feel it perfectly summarizes much about my experience with this book. Thank you Betty Smith for the treasure I’ve found with A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.
“To love, to struggle, to be in love with life–in love with all life holds, joyful or sorrowful–is fulfillment. The fullness of life is open to all of us.”