Newberys Read This Year: 14
Newberys Left for Goal: 1
Newberys Left for Total: 15
Book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Last year I read When Books Went to War, about the country’s efforts to put books in the hands (and pockets) of American servicemen during WWII. It was a wonderful read and made me prouder than ever to be a librarian and ALA member, as both were instrumental in the project. One of the ideas that stayed with me was the overwhelming popularity A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had for the troops. Wanting to know what drew them to the book inspired me to read it.
Well, that and I vaguely remember my mother trying to get me to read it when I was growing up, without success. She also tried to get me to read Anne of Green Gables and again I refused—but the joke was on me since I read it, finally, when I was in college and now cannot count how many times I’ve read the whole series (in fact, I’m currently rereading it as I write this). Since Anne worked out so well for me, I thought maybe Tree would, too (and it did—right again you were, Mum). Although, I did have to wonder why so many servicemen loved this children’s book.
Turns out, it is not a children’s book.
At best, it is a YA novel, but I tend to believe that the target audience is adults. I think it’s a common mistake to think of this as a children’s book because the protagonist is a young girl. We experience the world through Francie’s eyes, and, clearly, it is an adult world. I did love that as Francie matures and sees more than a child or teenager should, she remains age appropriate. But her story is meant for adults to experience, not children.
So what is her story? Francie and her younger brother Neely live with their parents Johnny and Katie Nolan in various apartments in pre-Great War Brooklyn. Johnny is a handsome dreamer, a talented singer (when he works it is as a singing waiter) with no ambition and a drinking problem. Katie is the realist. Drawn into her marriage by her physical attraction to Johnny, Katie quickly realizes that she must be the breadwinner. Her dedication to supporting her family leaves her little time to be affectionate with her children.
Despite Katie’s best efforts, the family remains poor and Francie’s life is marked by the many moves her family makes within the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. From an early age, Francie uses after school schemes to contribute to the family finances, whose meagre state (exacerbated by Johnny’s death due to alcoholism) eventually compel Francie to leave school as a young teenager to take an actual job. Francie thrives at the Clippings Office where she ultimately lands and is in time able to combine work and schooling, at last becoming a college girl.
I identified with Francie in several ways. As a child, her favorite place is the library (the fact that I became a librarian should make that connection crystal clear); she dreams of becoming a writer (the fact that I created my own writing opportunities with this blog illuminates this next connection); she likes learning for learning’s sake (and the fact that I have 2 college degrees, flirt with the idea of getting a third, and love investigating things just for the sake of knowing about them completes the trilogy). But perhaps the biggest way I felt a kinship with Francie is in the way that her own strengths contribute to her troubles.
When Francie starts earning fairly decent money, she dreams of being able to use it to finance her education. Katie nixes this idea, telling Francie the money will be used to pay for Neely’s schooling. Neely, who doesn’t even want to go to school. Katie tells Francie her reasoning for this; Francie is independent and determined enough to find another way to keep up her education, but without Katie forcing Neely into school, he will be content to give up on learning. So because Francie is competent, smart, responsible, and a hard worker, she has to pick up the slack for someone else’s benefit. This is such a familiar story for me. I have worked in three places at three careers—teacher, curriculum writer, and librarian. At every situation I have been given additional responsibilities—responsibilities that should justly belong to others—because I “handle it so well.” In other words, since I am competent, smart, responsible, and a hard worker, I have to pick up the slack for someone else’s benefit. I feel your pain, Francie!
But through it all, like the metaphor of the book’s title, Francie thrives—she more than thrives, she blooms. She is the charming underdog who inevitably succeeds due to her own personal qualities. She is the ultimate American success story, which is why she resonated so strongly with me and, I suspect, with those American servicemen fighting the Axis powers.
On a side note, I had one, and I think very great, advantage over those servicemen that greatly added to my enjoyment of the book. Brooklyn itself is intrinsic to the story. Put Francie’s story in a different city and it just wouldn’t make sense. To help make Brooklyn essentially a character in her story, Miss Smith gives great detail about the geography of the borough—streets, addresses, and landmarks. Thanks to the wonderful advancement of Google Maps, I was able to physically, albeit vicariously, follow Francie’s story. It was no end fun to actually see Francie’s neighborhood instead of just reading about it. It’s a shame the ALA couldn’t provide Pocket Maps to go along with those Pocket Editions of this wonderful book we all relished so much.