Thursday, March 17, 2011

Week 10: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

I was inspired to pick up this novel after reading someone blogging about it. The person was praising it and recommending it to a friend, and said something to the effect of “I’m jealous that you get to read this book for the first time.” That really stuck with me! What a great testimonial. I found myself understanding exactly what that person meant when I finished the book. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic “coming-of-age” story that takes place in the early 1900s. The protagonist is Francie Nolan, a little girl who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn with her parents and younger brother. They are poor and live in a tenement, often struggling to eat or make rent. Francie’s beloved father is a drunk who works sporadically, and Francie’s mom works most of the time cleaning the tenements in the neighborhood. Yet despite these hardships, they have a wonderful family and Francie’s optimism is never deterred. The reader follows Francie as she grows up over the years. It is stressed throughout the story that the key to escaping poverty is education, and it soon becomes clear that Francie loves books, reading, and learning. We can see that Francie is destined for better things. This all sounds terribly predictable, but the story is magical. Reading it is like being transported back in time – to a time where a lot of things seemed better than they are today. The descriptions of all of the residents of Williamsburg and their tight-knit neighborhood made me long for that kind of community. Everyone knew each other and looked after each other. Children ran to the store unattended for their parents with a nickel to haggle for a soup bone for their mom. Policemen stopped by homes for a cup of coffee and to gossip. When someone died, everyone in the neighborhood knew it and sent their condolences. If a baby was born, women let themselves into the mother’s unlocked apartment to tidy it up for her without asking. The story is full of enchanting accounts such as these that reminded me of stories my parents used to tell me about their childhoods. “Things were better back then,” they’d say as I rolled my eyes. I think I understand their point of view a little more after reading this. The author captures what it is like to be a child so beautifully that the reader finds themselves immersed in their own childlike wonder. I laughed a lot while reading this (Jamie, sitting next to me, would ask, “funny book?”). And the emphasis on education and reading is the cherry on top. If you’re in the mood for a great, uplifting book, definitely read this. It is truly wonderful.

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