Thursday, November 15, 2012

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I never know what to expect when I pick up a classic book. Sometimes I am left wondering how a book ever came to be taken seriously -- Robinson Crusoe, which I think must be the worst attempt at describing life on a desert island ever put to paper, falls into this category. Other times I am awed and amazed, as I was by Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels. Even when I hate the book I still feel enriched by the experience, since now I know another work in the canon and can tell everyone my opinion if the subject ever comes up.

I took A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) out of the library for the same reason as most of the classics I have looked into lately, because I have thoroughly picked over their books on cd and couldn't find anything that really grabbed my attention. This is famous, I think, I'll give it a try. So I picked up Betty Smith's coming of age novel, and when I headed off to Delaware for my latest round of fieldwork, I put in the first cd. After several trips back and forth, I finished listening today.

I loved it. It's a wonderful story beautifully told, at turns funny and sad, optimistic and grim: the best kind of book. The main characters are Francie Nolan, a poor girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, her family, and the city of Brooklyn itself. Betty Smith grew up poor in Brooklyn, and like Francie Nolan she loved the theater and dreamed of being a writer. Beyond that, it is hard to know how much of the story is true, because Smith never explained. When asked, she usually said, "Maybe it didn't happen that way. But that's the way it should have been!" She said this was a quote from her her father. But, her biographer notes,
no one knows if Johnny Wehner ever really said that, or if it was another of Smith's fabrications; indeed, it is a problem that her biographer must contend with, that Smith seldom told an unadulterated tale.
So let the novel stand on its own, as the story of a brilliant girl who knew hunger, deprivation, and shame, but, guided by her artistic father and a family full of strong, practical women, grew up into a force to be reckoned with. Like the tree of heaven, which is the book's central symbol, she prospered in a tough landscape of dirty air and stale bread. Her story is sweet, sad, funny, and, whatever the accuracy of its details, deeply true.

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