Class Act

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

 Click here to buy: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Perennial Classics)

Written By: Betty Smith

Reviewed by Justine Manzano


     I was a little confused when my reading list for my course in American History, Civil War to Present, asked me to purchase a novel.  So was everyone else around me.  I would read my novel around friends and family and I received no shortage of ďThatís for your English class, right?Ē comments.  The thing is, while some days university bureaucracies can cause Professors to lose their common sense, my history Professor had a plan.  A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith is not just a novel.  It is a historical portrait of the Industrialization and Urbanization of America in the 1890ís-1920.  It is a picture of the hardships suffered and the pains borne.  Alas, despite all of my protests, my professor made sense.  The novel was a perfect selection to drive home the reality of such desperate times. 

     The novel follows a girl named Francie Nolan from birth to her late teens.  Francieís mother, Katie, is a strong and sensible woman, working to keep her family from starving.  Her father, Johnny, is a drunk who struggles to hold on to his job as a part-time singing waiter, but who loves his family dearly.  Francie and her younger brother, Neeley, live in a world in which everything is a move to survive.  Everything Francie does must be rationed and carefully considered.  Food and money is scarce and through their mother Francie learns a brilliant resourcefulness as we follow her through her day to day struggle to save her family money all the while getting her hands on all the things her family needs.

     While there are many very interesting supporting characters in this story, most especially Francieís father who tries so hard but canít seem to get it right and canít seem to get his life straight, the real star of the show is Francie Nolan without a doubt.  Her resourcefulness coupled with an intelligence that runs circles around all her peers is an incredible show of strength.  She is often put upon.  One such time can be seen when Francie, a skilled writer, hands in a story that is written around her pained life and dealing with her fatherís alcoholism after a year of handing in pretty stories about nature and the like.  Her teacher gives her a C on the essay and tells her that she should burn such a sordid paper.  Francie goes home and burns the pretty papers, keeping her C papers because they are the truth.  This is a very inspiring scene that tells us a lot about Francieís character.

     Throughout the novel a pattern can be seen.  There is a tree that lives outside of Francieís tenement building that has grown through cement and despite many attempts at its destruction.  It becomes apparent that this little girl is the personification of that tree as she lives through poverty and trauma and will not stop growing despite how impossible the odds may be.  An important thing to remember is that Betty Smith, the author, grew up in very similar times under very similar circumstances.  I suggest that when reading this book, you read it as though you are reading the story of a personís true life.  Thought the story is dramatized, you will find this simple, as tiny seemingly insignificant details tell you that this story came from a place other than imagination.

     All in all, this book meant more to me than a book that was assigned to me for a history class should have.  Not only was this story an incredibly well-crafted account of life in poverty, but it was also the touching story of a girl growing up in harsh circumstances.  It struck a cord with me and Iím sure any reader will be able to avoid cracking a smile when one of Francieís wise observations stumps those around her.

     So, enjoy A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smithónot because it was assigned to you, but because it is a remarkable, well-written and truthful novel and it should be enjoyed. 

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