March 11, 2005
Sitting on a rusted fire escape on a sunny afternoon, a library book
in her lap and a chipped blue bowl filled with peppermint wafers at
her feet, is what 11-year-old Francie Nolan enjoys most.
A poor girl growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1900s, Francie
finds joy in lifes little pleasures visiting the neighborhood
library, Mass on Sunday mornings, listening to her father sing and
dining on Jewish rye bread once a week. But as Francie grows older,
lifes pleasures are fewer. Her beloved father drinks too much,
her mother loves her younger brother more, and the world isnt
kind to a young girl struggling to find a piece of happiness.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Harper
Collins, 1st Perennial edition, 1998, 496p) is a timeless coming-of-age
story about the working poor. Focusing on young Francie, author Betty
Smith introduces readers to a slight girl unaware o f her inner strength.
Through Francie, the reader lives the life of those that struggle
to find work and feed their children, yet still have time to dream.
With empathy and a flair for description, Smith introduces Francie
on a warm summer day in 1912. Francie, accompanied by her 10-year-old
brother Neeley, is making the weekly visit to the neighborhood junk
collector. It is a ritual performed by all of Brooklyns poor
children, where the rags, paper, metal, rubber and other junk collected
all week can be exchanged for a few pennies.
In the Nolan family, half of the money the childrens treasures
earn is deposited in the familys tin can bank, which is nailed
to the floor in the darkest corner of the closet. The remaining coins
are split evenly between the pair. This is money the children can
spend however they wish, a privilege that makes Francie feel, for
just a moment, like one of the privileged rich.
Life is never easy for Francie, but at times it is simple. The eldest
child of Johnny and Katie Nolan, she is the apple of her fathers
eye a personable man with looks and talent but a weakness for
alcohol. His ideas are greater than his ambition. His dreams stronger
than his reality. He is never able to hold down a job even if it means
his children go to sleep hungry. Yet, despite his shortcomings, Francie
worships her father.
Francie struggles to have the same love for Katie. She knows her
mother is the familys backbone, a pretty woman who works as
a janitress all day, taking on extra chores to buy food. But just
like the greatest of Francies love is reserved for her father,
all of Katies affections are showered on Neeley. Katie is determined
her son will grow to be everything his father is not.
Smiths language is a window into the Nolan family. Through
her words, the reader watches young Johnny and Katie fall in love,
knowing that the life they live will take its toll on those emotions.
The reader roots for young Francie as she struggles to learn, not
letting her disappointment on her first day of school deter her from
"She thought shed come home knowing how to read and
write. But all she got was a bloody nose gained by an older child
slamming her head down on the stone rim of the water trough when she
tried to drink from the faucets."
The reader travels with Francie as she grows from child to teenager,
struggling to come to terms with herself and her feelings about the
world around her. Through her, the reader sees how society views the
poor, and feels shame for the actions of the genteel people Francie
encounters. With Francie, the reader learns, loves, grieves and grows.
Like the tree that stands proudly in the front yard of Francies
home, the Nolans thrive when they shouldnt and triumph when
all of lifes elements are against them.
First published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a young adult novel that appeals to adults because of its honesty. For youngsters, the story will catapult them to a different world where imagination is all children need to be happy. Likewise, adults who read Francies story will recognize similarities between her childhood and theirs; they will applaud her survival the same way they cheered for themselves when they were younger.
Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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