I read this classic by Betty Smith for one of my book clubs. I was a little embarrassed to admit to the group that I hadn't read it before. I had seen the movie several times, but I'm not sure why I never got around to reading this one. The book is narrated by Francie Nolan, a precocious 11-year old who lives with her Irish American family in Brooklyn in the years prior to and just after WWI. They are extremely poor but proud and determined to make a better life for themselves. Katie, Francie's mom, cleans their building and a couple other buildings on their street to pay their rent. Francie's father, Johnny, is a lovable, carefree man with absolutely no ambition. He also happens to be an alcoholic. He works sporadically as a singing waiter when he's sober, which isn't very often. You'd think that it would be easy to dislike him, but for some reason I didn't. I liked him, but most of all, I felt sorry for him. He truly loved his family and was very proud of them, but he couldn't stop drinking long enough to take care of them properly.
Francie never seemed to fit in with the kids in the neighborhood or at school. She was often very lonely. She spent most of her time reading. In fact, she had a plan to read every book in the little library near her home beginning with the "A" authors and working her way right through to the "Z" authors. Saturdays were special because Francie would go to the library to get a book outside of her reading plan -- something just for fun. Each Saturday morning, Francie approached the librarian to ask her for a recommendation. And each Saturday morning, the librarian would ask her how old she was and then pull a book out from under her desk. During the entire exchange, the librarian never looked up. You'd think she would know this little girl by name and be excited to help her find something to read. This same thing happened every Saturday morning for years, and the librarian would bring the same (!) book out from under her desk for Francie each and every time. It didn't matter how old Francie got. It didn't matter that she had given her the same book every Saturday for years. The odd thing was that Francie never said anything. She simply took the book and read it -- again. As a librarian, I'm always sad to see librarians portrayed in a negative light. I'd like to think that librarians are in the profession because they want to help connect books and readers. Thankfully, the librarians in my local public library system are great! It's obvious that they chose their profession because they love what they do and care about their patrons.
Education, both formal and informal, is a running theme throughout the book. Katie's convinced that education will be the tool that helps her children better themselves and climb out of extreme poverty. Katie asks her mother what she can do to make sure that they succeed. Her mother replies, "The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day. I know this is the secret (p. 74)." Katie chooses two books to read a page out of to her children daily -- the Bible and Shakespeare.
The book follows Francie and her brother Neely and later, little sister Laurie, as they navigate life in the city. There is often cruelty and hardship, but there's also great love. Once they're older, they look back with fondness at the "good ole' days." It's hard to imagine any fond memories when they rarely had enough to eat, but they found joy in life and in each other.
There's so much more to this book than I can discuss here. The reader really gets a sense of what it was like for first and second generation immigrants in New York during the early part of the 20th century. In many ways, Brooklyn itself is almost another character in the novel. Francie loves Brooklyn. And she loves the tree that grows outside her window. It's called the Tree of Heaven. This tree is able to grow anywhere and under any circumstances. As a young child, Francie sits out on the fire escape under the shade of this tree and is transported to other worlds through her books. The tree, like Francie, thrives with very little nourishment. Even though it's cut down at one point, it returns and begins growing and thriving again. I highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn't read it. It is a true gem.
Several of the women at my book club read a biography of Betty Smith that really added to their understanding and enjoyment of this book. I haven't read it, but it comes highly recommended by those who have read it. If you're interested in details of the author's life and want to know more about how she came to write this book, check out Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.