I often review books from bygone eras because I admire the standards that make them classics. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from 1943.
Modern authors can learn a great deal about writing from this book. Though its situation is commonplace – a girl growing up in desperate poverty – the narration is straightforward, the characters well-crafted and engaging. Francie Nolan, age eleven, lives in a Brooklyn slum in 1912. Her father Johnny and mother Katie, who married young, face a hand-to-mouth struggle to support Francie and her brother Neeley. Johnny is nothing but a singing waiter and a drunkard, and Katie is only a janitor. Sensing her own potential, Francie teaches herself to read by starting at the top of the alphabet and attempting to absorb every book in the library. When they’re not in school, Francie and Neeley contribute to the family’s welfare by collecting junk and selling it to a neighborhood dealer.
Told mostly from a child’s point of view, this novel describes a world in which children find magic in nature, in their games together, and attractions as simple as an organ grinder’s monkey. Contrasting these special moments are the cruel realities of poverty and ignorance, as Francie and three thousand other children are crammed into a school built to hold a thousand. False rumors about smallpox vaccinations spread terror among both children and adults. And ethnic differences filter down from adults into their progeny, resulting in bullying incidents that reinforce Francie’s sense of inferiority.
Yet, there is much warmth and humor in the story. I particularly enjoyed an anecdote about Francie’s Aunt Evy befriending an abused horse. Her Aunt Sissy, a promiscuous but good-hearted woman, is the subject of a delightful incident involving adoption. Even her father Johnny possesses a redeeming charm that makes him a favorite denizen of the neighborhood saloon.
Despite living at the bottom of society, the Nolans have standards of morality and dignity. Katie would rather starve than take charity and seeks a better future for her children. There is great love among the Nolans for each other and members of their extended family.
Though sex and childbirth play important roles in the Nolans’ story, the author handles them as tastefully as possible under the circumstances. This is an era in which childbirth takes place not in hospitals but at home in the hands of midwives, one of whom delays her visit to Francie’s house until her dentures are thawed.
The novel contains occasional instances of profanity. Yet, the characters do their duty to God and their church. Faith is central to their lives. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a timeless jewel of American literature that I enthusiastically recommend to anyone who enjoys top-notch writing.