As part of our Classics Bookclub here at 5 Minutes for Books, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time and I’m so glad I did! I read somewhere that it’s a story where nothing happens but everything happens—an observation I found to be true, though it turned out to be far more enjoyable than I had guessed. Francie Nolan’s coming of age in pre-World War I Brooklyn is a poignant and hopeful story marked by the difficulties of poverty.
In fact, poverty and its many ramifications are among the main themes of the novel. Author Betty Smith devotes many words and much detail to the Nolan’s poverty as well as their methods of persevering and making do. Francie and her brother Neeley are well aware of their lack yet learn pride and resourcefulness from their mother Katie who teaches them the value of saving, the luxury of having something to waste (even if it is a single cup of coffee), and the necessity of hard work (Jennifer here: If you want to read about my first-hand observations of poverty in the Dominican Republic as well as the four other bloggers, please check out the posts at compassionbloggers.com.).
Part of what was so intriguing to me about the novel is Francie’s apparent nostalgia despite her family’s poverty. We sense throughout the novel Francie’s determination and belief that she will someday rise above her current situation, though she vows to always carry her Brooklyn accent with pride. We see her determination in her choice of education, in her persistence in writing the kind of stories that are true, and in the sort of employee and student she becomes.
Another intriguing theme is that of strong women, a legacy Francie continues:
“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices…But they were made out of thin invisible steel.”
In this novel, the women are strong and well accustomed to pain and hard work, in stark contrast to many of the men in the novel. Smith also writes of the complex relationships between women. One of the more disturbing scenes in the novel involves the stoning of a young unwed mother resulting in Francie’s vow to never trust women.
While somewhat surprised by the recurring theme of sexuality, from attempted assault to promiscuity, it never seemed to me to be gratuitous nor salacious. It was what it was, a key part of Francie’s culture, and an important statement about how women saw themselves.
Francie’s growing up was hard. Class issues, education, opportunity, the loss of loved ones—all were wrapped up in the reality of the poverty she knew. Yet this book is not a downer; its tone is one of hope. Francie does indeed find a better future for herself and in perhaps one of the more memorable scenes in the novel, she bids good bye to her former self as she prepares to embark on the new life she has attained. Just like a tree that grows in Brooklyn, the tree that grows and thrives no matter its environment, Francie too perseveres and thrives despite hardship.
I liked Francie. I admired her resolve and her strength. I respected her pride and understood her love of books. Her character is not a perfect one, yet one honest and unashamed of who she is and where she’s from. She is certainly one of the more unforgettable characters I’ve met through the pages of a book!
So, what did you think? Link up your thoughts on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and let us know!
Wife and mother, Bible teacher and blogger, Lisa loves Jesus, coffee, dark chocolate and, of course, books. Read more of her reflections at Lisa writes….