Saturday, March 30, 2013

331 (2013 #15). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith,
read by Anna Fields 

This classic coming-of-age story was the selection of my local book club for March.  I'm a little surprised I never read it before.

The main character is Mary Frances "Francie" Nolan, born in December, 1901, of Irish and Austrian second-generation immigrant parents, Johnny and Katie Rommely Nolan.  Johnny has a drinking problem and trouble holding a job, so Katie is the primary breadwinner, cleaning apartments to earn free rent.  The family (which also includes younger brother Cornelius, known as Neeley) lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York.

The story covers a period from 1900, when Johnny and Katie meet, to the fall of 1918.  The book was originally written as a memoir (author Elisabeth "Betty" Wehner Smith Jones Finch was born on the same date as her protagonist, but five years earlier).  It was "reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor at its publishing house," according to Anna Quindlen in her foreword to the 2005 print edition (pictured below).  Francie is Betty, and it is pretty clear that the Ben Blake in the book is Betty's first husband, George Smith.

I really enjoyed learning about life for poor working-class people in this part of Brooklyn in the early 20th century.  There are references to neat old stuff like spats (page 392) and a sulky (page 483) and a photostatic copy in 1917 (page 414) that I had to look up. The family manages to get by on very little money, but as the children get older and begin to work, their situation improves a bit.
The tree of the title is an invasive species common in vacant lots in New York City.  As it regrows and sprouts even when cut back, it is a metaphor for the family's ability to overcome adversity.  Another theme is the need for education to make this happen.

There is a lot of humor in this book.  I especially loved Katie's illiterate older sister Sissy, with her numerous husbands and lovers (all of whom she calls "John," ironically funny), who manages to stay positive about life despite experiencing ten stillbirths.

However, I didn't care much for the unfriendly librarian who never looked at Francie (pages 24 and 486), who gives a bad name to my profession, nor for the story of  Little Tilly and her brother Gussie (chapter 29).

The book is not without controversy.  There's an undercurrent of criticism of the Catholic Church. Katie's sister Evy takes "her children out of the Catholic Sunday School and putting them in the Episcopal Sunday School," because "She had gotten it into her head that the Protestants were more refined than the Catholics" (page 67).  When Francie is born, Katie's mother encourages her to read to Francie every night from the Protestant Bible, because "the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it" (page 83), which I find odd, because the Protestant Bible is just a subset of the Catholic Bible.

There was also a remark on page 113 that "Most Brooklyn Germans had a habit of calling everyone who annoyed them a Jew," which I found interesting given that this novel was published in 1943.

The audiobook is narrated by the incomparable Anna Fields, who manages to make all the characters sound a little different from each other.  The 2005 print version, besides Quindlen's forward, has a section at the end with the author's biography and other information about her and her works. 

Smith's daughter states in an article here that her mother "wrote interchangeably between narrative and drama....The forerunner of 'Tree' is an early three-act play called Becomes a Woman.  The character of Francie was developed in a play called Francie Nolan.  Chapter 33 of 'Tree' first appeared in a one-act play dated 1940 called Fun After Supper."  Smith studied at Yale Drama School and was involved with the Living Newspaper unit of the WPA's Federal Theater Project.

If you haven't already read this work, I'd definitely recommend that you do so.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were both borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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