A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Maturity Level: 4
View on Goodreads
The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
I wasn’t sure, before I started, whether I would like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or not. I don’t typically enjoy 20th century American literature, and it’s so LONG. But the longer I read the more enchanted I became.
There’s something so quintessentially American about this story. The characters are all immigrant New Yorkers, all poor, all striving to make a better life for their children. They value education, religion, family. They value hard work and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and they are so optimistic and hopeful that a better future is possible. They live difficult lives, but there’s an optimism and hope to this story, a hope that I worry we may have lost over the years.
I especially recommend this book for white readers. I think privileged white folk will relate better to the Nolans than modern literature about the poor. Yet the Nolans are immigrants too. The Nolans live in a poverty that I can barely even imagine. There is so much that we can learn from Francie about what it means to be poor that is still relevant today. Perhaps those insights might us to be more empathetic to those in our culture who are disenfranchised.
I was also struck by how relevant the themes in this book still are. Toxic masculinity and sexual assault, the absurdity of party politics, the impossibility of being happy years into a marriage, these are all things we still struggle with as a culture. The passages about the teachers and the way the interact with their impoverished students were especially striking to me, and might be more relevant now than when this book was published in 1943.
I am so glad that I read this book, and if you are an American I highly recommend you read it too. It’s long, it’s dense, but it’s worth it. I laughed. I cried. I was left breathless by the prose and by Smith’s ability to find beauty in even the simplest of things. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true masterpiece.