Monday, 11 August 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This is my second book for the What's in a Name challenge being hosted by Annie at Words by Annie.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is one of those books I'd heard of but it hadn't really registered, if you know what I mean. And then, some months ago, I saw it reviewed on a blog I'd just happened to come across by accident. I read the review and decided then and there to get the book as it sounded like something I might enjoy.



The story concerns the Nolan family who live in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, around the beginning of the 20th. century. There's the mother and father, Katie and Johnny and two children, Francie the eldest, and Neeley, her brother. The family is particularly poor in an already poor neighbourhood and the chief reason for that is the father of the household. Johnny, of Irish stock, drinks too much. He can't hold down a proper job but earns what he can as a singing waiter. Katie, the mother is basically supporting the family by cleaning other people's houses.

The main character in the book is really Francie. She's intelligent, bookish and wants to be a writer. All the odds are stacked against her. After we learn this the story then goes back in time and we learn the history behind the Nolan's marriage. We meet Katie's family, who are of Austrian stock - her mother, Mary, her cruel father, and two sisters, Sissy and Evy. Sissy loves the men and although loved within the family is also thought of as 'bad' by them. She is desperate for children and, of all the family, is doted on by Francie. Francie is also extremely close to her brother, Neeley, despite the fact that she knows her mother loves him more than her. It also has to be said that though the father, Johnny, is a wastrel he is also a loving father to Francie. In other words, despite being the poorest of the poor, Francie is surrounded by people who love her.

This is not a book to be hurried - I've actually been reading it over the past four or five weeks. The book meanders back and forth, through the years, as Francie and Neeley grow up and things slowly change for the family. It was quite a shocker in some respects, the struggle to put food on the table was ever present and it's very sad when you realise the mother is claiming to be 'not hungry' at meal times so that the children can have more. You want to strangle the father but it's just that he's the kind of man who can't handle responsibility and who should never have married in the first place. And Katie did set out to get him so in a way she only had herself to blame for the circumstances she found herself in. As Francie reflects much later in the book, it's the children who pay in the end, being sent out to work far too early and constantly having to struggle and compromise to make up for their parent's shortcomings or mistakes.

I gather this book is thought of as an American classic and if it weren't I would probably be asking 'why not?' It's sad - even tragic at times - but it's also a tale about how, if you're young and work hard and have your health, you can lift yourself up out of the most extreme poverty. I absolutely loved it to bits.

17 comments:

Jeane said...

Wonderful review. I really like this book.

monix said...

I haven't read the book, Cath, but the 1945 film with Dorothy McGuire and Joan Blondell is a must-see for me whenever it is shown on television. It's a real whole-box-of-tissues treat.

DesLily said...

to take what monix said a step farther... in a time before "great special effects" there were great stories written (that didn't require effects to get the story across) and great directors and actors who made them come to life.!

Kay said...

This is an American classic. I read it many years ago and your wonderful review made me know that I need to revisit it again soon.

Cath said...

Thanks, Jeanne. The book has gone onto my all time favourites list... not that such a list actually exists. *G*

I can't say that I've ever seen the film, M, unless I've forgotten. But the book is also a whole-box-of-tissues treat.

Hi Pat, I really think I might have to search out the movie as it seems to be popular.

Kay, I'm glad to hear it is an American classic, it deserves to be. And now I'm wondering what other American classics I've missed out on...

Nicola said...

Godd review, Cath. I do like 20th Century American literature so I'm going to try and get a copy of this.

Cath said...

This book is so worth getting, Nicola. I don't know much about 20th. century American Lit., I have to confess. Hoping to remedy that by finding a few more authors to read. I want to read a lot more Edith Wharton for instance, though I'm not sure if she's 20th. century or 19th. Talk about confused!

Charley said...

I absolutely loved this book. I thought Francie was such a wonderful protagonist and a beautiful example of a strong woman. Like you say, not a book to be rushed, but I think it's definitely worth the time.

Cath said...

Hi Charley, thanks for visiting my blog. Glad you agree with me about this book; I think it will stay with me for a long, long time. A couple of people on another blog recommended another book by Betty Smith - Joy in the Morning - as being almost as good. Have you read that one?

Tara said...

I'm so glad you loved this book. I love it too and am looking forward to re-reading it this Fall, to discuss with my book club. I have read Joy in the Morning. I don't think it's as good as ATGIB, but it's still very good and worth reading. I have another book of Smith's, a vintage one, that I'm saving for a rainy day.

Cath said...

I hope you enjoy rereading ATGiB, Tara. And I hope your reading group enjoy it too... it's hard to see how they wouldn't but people have such varying tastes. I've added Joy in the Morning to my 'to get' list.

Cath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danielle said...

For some reason I put off reading this book for a long time and then when I finally did get around to it I Loved it!! It is a wonderful story though not always happy. I thought it gave a wonderful picture of the times!

Nan said...

I know I read this when I was a girl, but don't think I'd want to now. Too sad.

Cath said...

Hi Danielle, I can understand why you put off reading it as it does seem as though it might be a heavy, depressing kind of book. It *is* sad but somehow the writing isn't at all heavy and it's actually a very readable story.

It was a sad story, Nan, but just when I began to think it would never change, things began to get slowly better for the family. So I didn't mind that.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

I've got this one on my list for another challenge - glad to hear you enjoyed it and also I'll take your advice not to hurry over it. Thanks for the review!

Cath said...

tinylittlelibrarian: You have a real treat in store with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It's a wonderful read and yes... try not to hurry it. It's well worth taking your time over.