A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was another fabulous blast from the past. I saw an early printing of it sitting on my boyfriend’s shelf, got curious, and stole it for a couple weeks until I finally got around to reading it. This is a complex coming of age story of a young girl named Francie growing up below the poverty line in Brooklyn just prior to World War I. A lot of it is most likely autobiographical from Smith’s own experiences growing up as the daughter of immigrants in Brooklyn during that time, but not all.
The book gets its title from a particular species of invasive plant that has taken root in Brooklyn, called a Tree of Heaven. There is one tree in particular that has grown up and around the fire escape that Francie will escape to and read on for hours at a time.
Split into five books, this novel starts with a set of scenes from early in the girl’s life, then jumps back even further to focus on her parents and how they met. It then progresses through her early childhood, school years, graduating from the lower grades and skipping high school to help her family out by working in the city, finagling her way into college courses and we finally end the story as she is getting ready to leave for college out of state and is contemplating a possible marriage.
Smith’s writing is simple and poignant. It’s stripped-down nature is at times its most powerful tool, making scenes that could be overwrought and sentimental instead brutally efficient. If you want an example, read it through until you get to the scene where they have to buy her father’s funeral plot. There is a simple small section about the star bank they have to empty to buy the plot that literally felt like a blow. If this section had been gussied up, it would have been saccharine and terrible, but it’s simplicity is what gives it its incredible power.
I can see why this novel has become a standard of literary fiction. It draws you in and makes you cheer on the protagonist. Rarely do you feel pity or guilt or any of those other somewhat negative emotions, regardless of the circumstances of this family. Instead, they are so strong and so beautiful that you as a reader are left feeling warm and empowered. They accomplish so much with so little that it is a truly inspiring tale.