Love is lovelier the second time around. It is also true of books. Case in point, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the May read for the book club at Clayton Books. Lots of us in the group had read Betty Smith’s book many years ago, while still in our teens. A slow and thoughtful reread of this wonderful story makes me enormously happy that we chose it.
Tree is listed as one of the 100 best books of the century by the New York Public Library. It is a prestigious list, but I would question the category in which it is placed: Favorites of Childhood and Youth. Appearances can be deceptive. Yes, it is the story of young Francie Nolan, daughter of German and Irish parents living in a poor immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. What separates Francie Nolan’s story from almost every other young woman’s coming-of-age tale is the depth of its reality. Betty Smith’s Francie is a far cry from Louisa May Alcott’s girls of the March family. Brooklyn is a far cry from Sunnybrook Farm and unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, there were no magic shoes to click together to return her to the safety of her family. Francie’s family was anything but safe.
What struck me as I read was to wonder if I had actually ever read it. I don’t remember the attempted rape in the stairwell of Francie’s tenement building. What I remembered were the lovely songs her father sang (never mind that he was a drunk) and the imaginative meals her mother cooked just one meal from starvation. I don’t recall the “Jew bread” or the name Sheeny. I certainly did not recall all those husbands that Aunt Sissy had, without benefit of divorce.
The Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of this book comes with biographical notes and commentary. It also includes an insightful introduction by Anna Quindlin. Given the recent “to do” over memoir vs. fiction, it is interesting to note that Betty Smith first wrote Tree as a memoir, but at the urging of an editor it was written as fiction.
Today’s reader can see Francie as an early, but undeclared feminist. As different as the German and Irish backgrounds of her parents were, they blended as one in their acknowledgement that education was the one thing that could lift one to a better and more secure level of existence.It is almost at the dead center of the book that Smith lays down the gauntlet in a scene between Francie and one of her favorite teachers. Would Francie continue to write pretty stories that pleased her teachers or stories that told of drunkenness, poverty and starvation? When Francie asks her teacher, “What does one write about?” The answer is immediate: “One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there.” The teacher continues in the words of Keats:“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Francie defends her writing as being truthful. The reader is left to see if Smith’s story will be truthful or beautiful.
Within Smith’s truth is a strong trust in the reader’s intelligence. When Francie’s heart is broken upon finding out that the first man she ever loved had, in fact, been stringing her along, she asks her mother if she made the right decision in forgoing having sex with him without benefit of marriage. Katie, her mother, in a stroke of genius, gives Francie two answers. She answers first as a mother and then as a woman. The answers are incompatible and just like this remarkable book, beautifully truthful.