Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.
Library Thing blurb: Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely–to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father’s child–romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother’s child, too–deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.
I honestly have no idea how I made it to age forty without reading this book! It existed during my growing-up years, the years during which I devoured Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, and would have been consumed by Francie’s coming-of-age story. I wish I could go back in time and read it then and then compare how I reacted while reading it as an adult. I loved it as an adult, but found myself relating to it more as a mother and wife than as a young woman of Francie’s age. I’m sure my reading experience would have been different as a young teen.
Betty Smith’s book is highly autobiographical, and that shines through in every word. This is one of the most authentic books of historical fiction I’ve read in a while; Smith places you right into Francie’s shoes, living in Francie’s apartment, walking the streets of Brooklyn alongside her and her brother Neeley. She doesn’t romanticize anything, and so this is a very gritty book, full of the stark reality of poverty at the turn of the century.
Francie is a highly relatable character, especially for anyone whose best childhood friends were books. Her mother was a little more difficult for me to get. I understood how a woman of that era could be stuck in a marriage like hers, but I was horrified by how much she favored Neeley over Francie, to the point where Francie was completely aware that her mother didn’t love her the same way she loved her brother. As a result, Francie was closer to her father, who continually let his family down with his drinking and inability to get a decent job.
Because of their poverty, and the cruelty of children, Francie and Neeley become each other’s best friends. As someone who only has sisters, I enjoyed very much the relationship between this sister and brother, and the way they watched out for each other.
Even though this chunkster of a book, I found myself wanting more, wanting to know what happened to Francie after the final pages. I proceeded to do some research to find out if Smith had ever written a sequel, but no sequel exists. I will have to be content with my own picture of Francie’s future.
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