When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was originally published in 1943, it was a huge success, and Betty Smith's book became an instant classic. It is about several years in the life of the Nolan family in the early 20th century and it is mostly about the coming-of-age of the main character, Francie Nolan. It is that rare novel that can be enjoyed by both teenagers and adults.
This book very definitely has its own style, I think partly because it was written as a memoir and changed into a novel. Smith obviously poured her heart into this book. Her other novels are charming, but they don't have the depth of this book. Because Smith could fictionalize apparently real people, she could flesh out the characters until they seem like real people, not characters in a novel. Sometimes even minor characters are given thoughts and feelings, as how they relate to the main characters in the book.
A strong point of the novel is its sense of place. Smith even describes in detail the neighborhood. the neighbors and everyday life until you feel are actually in the Brooklyn of 100 years ago. The novel opens by describing Brooklyn in 1912:
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in the summer.
The women are the stronger people in the book. Many of the male characters are weak-willed, while the women persevere. Francie Nolan, the main character, is the daughter of Johnny and Katie Nolan and the sister of Neeley. Francie is a fully-realized character. Francie is a strong person, who you know will do well in life.
Katie, the mother, is very hard-working. She cleans apartment buildings for a living. She is scrubbing floors when she is an advanced state of pregnancy. Katie refuses anything that smacks of "charity." One wonders what she would think of Section 8, food stamps, free school lunches, and WIC. Sometimes there is no food in the house, and the children go hungry.
Johnny Nolan, the father, is a singing waiter, but has no steady job. He mostly works at one-shot jobs like weddings and parties. Johnny is an alcoholic. There was little understanding or treatment of alcoholism when Smith wrote the book. We now know that alcoholism is a disease, with both powerful psychological as well as physical components. So even though Johnny is lovable, and really loves his children, he is perceived as weak and a loser. Johnny comes from a long line of alcoholics; perhaps his problems were at least partially due to a genetic disposition toward the disease.
Francie senses that her mother loves Neeley more by her actions, but she eventually comes to peace with it. This does not mean that her mother doesn't love her, of course she does. It is partly because Neeley is reminiscent of the father and Katie does not want him to turn out the same way. Francie is like her mother in that she is strong and smart, but she has also inherited her father's creative ability and his dreaminess. One of the main differences between Francie and her father is that Francie takes action, and Katie admires that. Francie works hard at school and at her various jobs, and in improving upon her hardscrabble beginnings.
The novel does have flaws. Some of the psychoanalyzing and character analysis is quite dated. Women are thwarted by "starved love instincts." However, I find the book to be mostly very strong, especially about the characterization of Francie. She is a completely realized character. You feel as if you know her. The book takes her from an eleven-year-old child to a young woman about to leave Brooklyn and start new adventures. Even though she is going far away, she will never really leave Brooklyn behind:
She might get rid of her Brooklyn accent that way. But Francie didn't want to get rid of it any more than she wanted to get rid of her name. It meant that she belonged some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn't want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.
You just wish that there had been a sequel.
Disclosure: I purchased this book.
It's a Book Review Party at Cym Lowell!