Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Published Date: 1943
A beautiful, simple novel that spans the teenage years of Francie Nolan. The novel begins when Francie is 11-years-old and finishes when she is almost 17. To say that this is a novel without a plot or anything major happening would be disingenuous to the marvelous story that Betty Smith has written here. The novel, of course, takes place in Brooklyn, NY in the Williamsburg neighborhood. While today the Brooklyn neighborhood is the best, hip place to live back in the early 20th century it was where tenements and people who could barely make ends meet. Yet, Francie made the most of it by writing, telling stories that contained some nuggets of truth.
The story could have had all the trappings of a Cinderella fairy tale. The young girl who grows up with nothing, finds a boy who has everything, and they live happily every after. However, the ending we are left with is more satisfying and more believable than any fairy tale. The last part of the novel covers the last few moments of Francie’s life in Brooklyn before she leaves for the University of Michigan. Her mom is marrying again, a man who will be able to provide for both her mom and baby sister. Francie does have a boy who wants to be with her, but he gives all the reins to Francie. He does give her a “promise” ring and will let her decide once she grows up some more and knows her own mind better, recognizing that Francie is still 16.
I never thought I would love a book like I love To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, yet this book gave me many of the same feelings while reading it as Lee’s novel. Although Scout and Francie grew up completely different lives, let alone places. However, Francie’s story speaks more to be than Scout’s. Maybe by the fact that beauty sometimes does come from immense pain and suffering.
Which is what I want to focus on in this post. I know many people will find different ideas and concepts they connect with in this book. For me, I kept going back to the scene with Francie and her teacher about her writing.
After Francie receives a few C’s on her writings, her teacher wants to talk with her after class. She tells Francie this: “Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness” (Smith, 322).
For the rest of the scene, the teacher tells Francie about how “hard” and “difficult” her life was. Although the teacher had a father who had a salary, sometimes maids, went to college, and one time had to live on tea and toast for three days.
Francies is poor. Actually below poverty line poor, and not saying that the teacher did not have her problems, but the fact that she believes her life was awful is a problem. Along with the fact that she has this idea that vice and poverty and horribleness cannot be in stories or beautiful.
Betty Smith writes a beautiful novel about such things, which is obviously why she specifically has this scene in the novel. This scene keeps popping into my brain because I find it offensive that this character (probably real people) believe that there cannot be beauty in tragedy or immense pain. Sometimes that is the only place we find beauty.
Truth and beauty. The remains of all that we are sometimes can only be boiled down to the beauty and truth that is the pain of life. When we do not discuss the horrible events in life and try to cover them up with pretty stories and words, we forget what makes us human, we don’t process those emotions, which can lead us to a path of drunkenness and vices.
Pain, poverty, painful events in life are not supposed to bring joy but if we don’t talk about it we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead us there. We lose a bit of our humanity, never to regain it.