Book review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

When I posted my Spring Reading Thing list, I mentioned that I first saw this book on a Bugs Bunny cartoon when I was a kid. I don’t remember the plot of the cartoon and don’t know if this book title related at all to what was going on in the cartoon: I just remember Bugs reading it as he was walking off into the sunset at the end of the episode. For some reason the title stuck with me. Then a few years ago I caught part of an old black and white film of the same name and discovered it was the story of a little girl with an alcoholic father. My father was an alcoholic as well, and though his personality and situation were different from the film, I still found many things I could identify with. So I planned to read the book “some day.”

Making a list of books you want to read in a certain time period is a good way to get those “some day” books actually read, so I put this book on my spring list.

I must say at the outset — I had no idea this books would have such profanity and vulgarity. I don’t read much modern secular fiction because of those elements. But I thought this book was published long enough ago that it wouldn’t be a problem. I know that profanity and vulgarity aren’t new to the 20th century, of course, but I just figured books from farther back in time would be “cleaner.” If I had known that this books contained so much of this, I would not have begun it; as it was I considered laying it aside many times.

I know, of course, that these things are a part of many people’s lives: I grew up in an unsaved family and heard  much of the same in my early years. I know many children today see, hear, and experience much worse things than are contained in this book. But I don’t want to fill my head with it again in my reading after years of trying to get that kind of thing out of my mind.  I think the realism of Francie’s life could have been expressed without it: it could have been referred to without being explicit.

That said….I discovered the book was not just about Francie and her alcoholic father. It is more about a young girl “coming of age” in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, though that description sounds so bland. Francie had more to deal with than an alcoholic father: extreme poverty, a mother who had hardened herself somewhat to deal with the blows of life and who loved Francie’s brother, Neely, more than she did Francie, a love of learning yet a need to quit school to work to support the family.

The symbolism of the tree in the title and in the story is clear: the tree that “liked poor people,” that grew in “sour earth” where it wasn’t given much inducement to grow, that continued to grow even after it was cut down, is parallel to Francie’s life.

There were several poignant moments in the book. Though I don’t think anyone in the family ever said so out loud, everyone knew that Francie’s mother favored her brother, Neely, yet when  her mother was in the last days of her third pregnancy and gave birth, she and Francie found a companionship they hadn’t had before.

Francie enjoyed reading, and later, writing, and often got As on her “pretty” compositions.  But when she began to write about her father, trying to “show that, despite his shortcomings, he had been a good father and a kindly man,” her teacher rebuked her for writing “sordid” stories, saying, “Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they are too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness. Hunger is  not beautiful. It is also unneccesary. We have well-organized charities. No one need go hungry.”

Francie thought, “Imagine Mama lazy!” Her mother worked her finger to the bone. “Her mother hated the word ‘charity’ above any word in the English language and she had brought up her children to hate it, too.”

Though I do know of people who are poor because they aren’t diligent, there are also people who work harder than many of us have ever known, yet have low-paying jobs and just cannot get ahead — yet we so glibly let these judgmental thoughts pour forth. Francie had been brought up to believe that education was her hope, yet she began to realize that “her life might seem revolting to some educated people.” She didn’t want to grow up “ashamed of handsome papa who had been so lighthearted, kind, and understanding; ashamed of brave and truthful Mama who was so proud of her own mother, even though Granma couldn’t read or write; ashamed of Neely who was such a good honest boy.” She felt that all her pretty stories were lies and burned them.

There seems to be, in literature, at least, three kinds of “drunks.” There’s the “mean drunk” who abuses his wife and children and gets meaner the more he drinks. There’s the “happy drunk” like Magnolia’s father in Showboat, drunkenly sputtering “Happy New Year” to smiling observers. Then there is a kind of beautiful tortured soul — the person who is kind, often artistic, likable, charming, yet with this one destructive weakness. In the film Francie’s father seemed to be the happy, jolly sort, from what I remember, but in the book he was more the last type. He was warm, thoughtful. and caring; he was the one who took care of Francie when she was injured, who seemed to understand her in a way that her mother didn’t.

One situation in the book particularly showed Francie’s dilemma and character. The time came when the children were old enough to legally quit school and work. they needed the income of one of them; only one would be able to continue on to high school. Francie was studious and wanted to learn; Neely wanted to quite school and work. It would seem natural to let them both follow their desires. But Francie’s mother determined that Neely would go to school because if she didn’t make him, he never would, whereas Francie would fight to get an education. Both children were bitterly disappointed, but Francie’s mother’s prediction turned out to be true: Francie later put herself through college. I don’t know if I could have made the same decision in that mother’s place.

Along the way in the book there are intriguing historical glimpses into everyday life and the customs of that time and place.

Some portions of the book are autobiographical: Betty Smith grew up in Brooklyn and wrote what she knew. Yet she said that she “didn’t write it the way it was, but the way it should have been,” so it’s hard to know, at least from the biographical information in the back of the book, which parts were “the way it was” and which were the way she thought they should be.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it ends on a more hopeful note than what is found in most of the story.

17 thoughts on “Book review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  1. This is one of my all time favorite books! Actually, she is one of my favorite authors. Her character development pulls me right in as does her settings. I can handle the rough language and stuff b/c I don’t think it is gratuitous.

  2. I read and reviewed this book as well this week! I was also surprised by the rough language, etc., especially because I read this as a teenager and don’t remember ANY of that. Perhaps I was more accustomed to it then than I am now!

  3. I’m sorry to read about the language in this book as I have been really interested in reading it. Still, it sounds like a good book, in spite of that, so I think I will red it eventually. I enjoyed your review.

  4. This has been a favorite book of mine for years. I actually read it at a quite young age. Your thoughts about the language and situations are on target. But it is still incredibly well written.

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  9. Unfortunately I think I have seen and read so much worse that I think maybe I have become slightly de-sensitized. I appreciate your review. It wasn’t my favorite book.

  10. Good review! This is one of my favorite books. I read it first when I was eleven, and it was interesting reading it from an adult’s perspective. I don’t consider myself desensitized to profanity, but I really don’t remember a lot of profanity in this book, and as far as the vulgarity, I just consider it part of the culture and surroundings of the time.

  11. Wow a lot more thought went into your review than my own.

    I really loved it, it really helped me be grateful for the comfortable circumstances I am able to raise my children in.

  12. I enjoyed your perspective. Many things you voiced in regards to the profanity and vulgarity I thought. However, I took in context and did not think of it as over the top. I appreciated Katie and how she did talk to her children straight forth…like when Francie was questioning her about sex.

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