A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is considered an American classic…but growing up in Canada meant it was never on any reading list. I had never even heard of it until my American colleague told me I HAD to read it. So I did. It’s a wonderful coming of age story that reminded me of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, A Prayer for Owen Meany and Fifth Business but (delightfully) this one is about a GIRL!!!!
Francie Nolan is 11 years old in 1912 – the daughter of two first-generation Americans. Her parents are poor; Katie Rommely is a janitress and Johnny Nolan is a mostly-out-of-work singer. So, the story is often about poverty and the small treasures to be found in Brooklyn and in life. I really loved the book; the only aspect that bothered me was the very realistic portrayal of how women were treated by both strangers and even their families at that time. In one scene, Katie forces Francie to quit school and take a job while her younger brother, with no desire to be a scholar or even be in school, continues on. While Katie’s reasoning is later made clear, I was so mad while reading that I kept shaking my head in disbelief and clenching my fist. While the ending struck me as a little too ‘packaged’, I thought it was a terrific book and will add it to my class optional reading list at the grade 9/10 level.
My letter after reading:
The Most important page of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is page 83, when Katie Rommely suddenly realizes she is not able to give her newborn daughter Francie any advantage in life: no money, a limited education, and a weak father. In panic that she will give her daughter a repeat on her life, Katie asks her own mother: “What must I do […] to make a different world for her?”
As shocked as I was by the answer, it made my heart sing. Mary Rommely names reading and writing as the two most important tools in the world. They are “the secret” – to developing an imagination, to then learning the difference between truth and what is imagined, and to overcoming disappointment in life. And from all the possible reading options to illuminate “the secret”, she names two: The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The King James Bible.
When I read that, I couldn’t control the vigorous nodding of my head because there are truly no other books that offer such vast richness of expression, imagination and a sense of ‘being’ human. In fact, if I had to choose only two books for a deserted island, or prison, or solitary confinement, I can’t think of better company. Can you?