Book Review: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

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I am sure all of you book lovers know the feeling I am about to describe.

I have not heard of this book prior to purchasing it; therefore I had no intention of buying it that day. My shopping list consisted of “Ready Player One”, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Book Thief”. However, as I was walking past the “S” shelf in Waterstone’s, my gaze fell upon an orange copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and something pulled me towards it. The last time I experienced that feeling was when I found “The Angel’s Game” which is now one of my favourite books. I flipped through the pages and saw that the main character liked to write, so of course I had to add it to my cart!

This is a coming of age novel set in pre-WWI New York. The protagonist is Francie Nolan, a child from a poor family who falls in love with words. Throughout Francie’s eyes, we observe the fascinating and diverse lifestyle and personalities of the Brooklyn inhabitants at the time. The flashbacks to the early days of the Nolan family make up the first half of the book and tell the story of Katie and Johnny and their siblings before Francie was born. The second half of this masterpiece tells the tale of Francie’s childhood and teenage years, filled with many struggles the poor face on the daily basis, as well as traditional struggles of a young person. Francie’s observant and optimistic nature sets a positive tone for the novel – although their lives are very humble, they are written in a way that makes us believe that they are happy.

Personally, I think that writing from a child’s point of view is both difficult and rewarding; Betty Smith does a remarkable job of capturing Francie’s POV and makes the reader love her and relate to her a lot. The first half of the book focuses on the history of the Nolan family, which some may consider to be daunting, but Betty Smith’s narrative did not make me think that for a second. Not only is it essential to the plot, but it is also written in a way that makes us relate to the characters and understand them really well. The second part of the novel, which focuses more on Francie’s character development, is raw with honesty and is subtly interwoven with the typical issues of the time. One particular issue I would like to talk about is the character of Sissy and the shaming she endures. She is written as a good and loving person; however, she faces a lot of disdain for sleeping around and basically being who she is – the only way of life Sissy strives for is being a wife and a mother. She and Johnny are similar characters – they both have a weakness, in Johnny’s case it’s alcohol and in Sissy’s, it’s love. What illustrates the issues of sexism of the time the most in this book (besides the numerous conversations about not allowing the women to vote), is the minor characters’ attitude towards both Sissy and Johnny. Both of these characters have redeeming qualities; however, the aforementioned minor characters only acknowledge Johnny. Betty Smith seems to understand the issue really well because Sissy’s character development – her transformation from a promiscuous woman to a wife and a mother with a stable life is not written as “redeeming” or “demoralising” – Smith does not value the latter version of Sissy over the former. Like I said above, Francie’s personality and attitudes set the tone for the whole novel, and she loves both versions of Sissy’s; however, she prefers the earlier, more “promiscuous” version of hers; in case of Johnny, the situation is the same – Francie loves her father dearly, despite his faults. Once again, the social attitudes towards Sissy and Johnny are different – their flaws are just that – flaws, and they do not define their personalities; however, Sissy is shamed for hers whereas Johnny hardly ever is. To conclude, Smith arguably acknowledged the issue of misogyny being prevalent at the time and wrote “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, with the help of Francie’s character establishing the positive tone of the novel, challenging that attitude and showing how ridiculous it is. I believe this is one of the things that makes this book so relevant nowadays. My rating is 10/10.

Favourite character and why;

Katie Nolan (nee Rommelly). This woman is seriously one of the most underappreciated strong female characters in literature. She is not perfect of course, but strong female characters aren’t supposed to be (unless you’re writing a Mary Sue type of character, which is absolutely fine). Katie is, for the lack of another term, a badass. Smith describes her as “made of thin invisible steel”. She could have been considered a romantic before her marriage, but even then, she was a survivor – a trait that has only strengthened throughout the years of her marriage and motherhood.

Most relatable character and why;

Francie – she is so amazingly well-written! You can watch her grow up into a smart, observing child and later a young woman who, despite everything she learns, whether good or bad, still loves her home and her family; and despite everything she goes through, she remains true to herself. Also, she loves reading and writing, although unlike Liesel Meminger, she pursues this passion using the slightly more… traditional means!

Character who gets the most development; 

Francie

Favourite relationship; 

Francie and writing/books – they are such a big part of her character, and I can relate to that really well.

Favourite quotes:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived”.

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

Dreamcast

Francie: Emilia Jones/Kerry Ingram and later, Sophie Nelisse

Katie: Holly Marie Combes

Johnny: James Stewart circa “Rear Window”

Sissy: Lisa Kudrow

Recommendations. 

You might like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” if you liked:

– “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak;

– “Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon;

– Gilmore Girls

(Source of the photo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/843126.A_Tree_Grows_in_Brooklyn)

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