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  • Writer's pictureDana Glossbrenner

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith): A Review

I've buried my head in some wonderful books in the past year--The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski, Holy Ghost Girl (memoir) by Donna Johnson, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova (nonfiction). All were riveting, couldn't-stop reads. But the book I've savored the most is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It was recommended to me years ago by a friend. The name stuck in my mind as an image of hope. My son and his young family live in Hoboken, New Jersey, and I've pondered the idea of a tree growing in this place so similar to Brooklyn. Historically, both weren't high-rent neighborhoods. Both areas have fairly recently become the trendy, sought-after living spaces for commuters to Manhattan. I had no idea what the Brooklyn book was about but could take a fair guess from the title, and with the thought of my grandchildren growing up in Hoboken, I often thought about the trees that grow there, reaching for the light over the townhouses, their strong roots buckling the sidewalks into treacherous slabs.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in the early 1940s, was a best seller and is now considered a classic, made into a movie. Somehow, I'd missed that. The book took me back to the early 20th century, when telephones were just becoming a common household item, and when people rode horse-drawn trolleys and milk was delivered by wagon. Kids ran all over the neighborhood, yet danger lurked in the form of a pedophile killer. Francie, the main character, gains street savvy and determination as she strives to stay in school. Her grandmother couldn't read, and her mother determined that her children would not only read but get an education. Francie, her brother Neely, and mother Katie struggle to survive. Father and husband Johnny Nolan is a drunk--but a handsome, fun one. He just couldn't be counted on to hold jobs that would support the family.

Something that I found refreshing is the breaking of today's rules for writing fiction. It is now de rigeur that authors not "head-hop" by changing the point of view from one character to another without some kind of dramatic break or scene change. Smith took great liberties, and got away with it. The style of the book did not feel timeworn. The content is so true to human nature that the time becomes a fascinating backdrop. Francie faces many of the same problems that girls growing up face today--fitting in, feeling lonely, being tempted to have sex. Katie's struggles as a mother are similar to the ones facing mothers today.

From the title's metaphor, the reader can safely assume that Francie will make it. Because hardy trees do grow in Brooklyn and, for my own peace of mind, in Hoboken, too. And the book has staying power. The 75th anniversary edition is out!

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