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Saturday, March 05, 2011


Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn transports us back to an earlier time, the early part of the 20th century in one of the most famous places on earth, Brooklyn, New York. Here masses of relatively new working class Americans came to make their way, dreaming about the endless possibilities while working hard to make it through the day.

In this long-ago place lives the Nolan family, Katie and Johnnie who marry young, love, work hard, and soon have two children, Francie, young, impressionable and sensitive to the hard world but aware that beyond her neighborhood’s confines is a gentler world she wishes to enter, and Neeley, tough and tender at the same time but rambunctious and anxious to live for the moment.

Johnnie Nolan makes his way as a singing waiter. He is liked by everyone for his friendly, respectful and thoughtful ways. As a father he encourages Francie, his “prima donna,” to follow her dreams, and he encourages her fancies just as he lives in his own—that the impresario will discover him one night as he works, and all his wishes will come true.

In order to keep her home together, Katie Nolan does not have the luxury of dreams. She works as a janitress in her building. She loves Johnnie, but she does not like his drinking nor the idea that she cannot depend upon him. Her sense of responsibility makes her appear hard, and in some ways she is, but she feels she has to act as she does if her children are to have a better and easier life than she has.

Katie’s mother, who can neither read nor write, insists that the family read the Bible and William Shakespeare. Each night they read whether they understand or not, for she knows that somehow it is education that open the doors to a better world. It is Francie’s intention, in fact, to read her way, alphabetically, through the books in the library, and she reads voraciously.

We meet Katie’s sister, Sissy, with her peculiarities and string of husbands. We meet other neighbors, some good and some bad. We see Francie become an adolescent and deal with all the problems that involves, and we see the very difficult and divisive decisions Katie is forced to make as Johnnie’s drinking becomes more of a problem.

Despite the hardships of daily life, the births, sicknesses and deaths,  throughout the novel there is so much good and a great deal of happiness in little triumphs and successes that keep spirit and hopes high.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is a reminder that the little things in life are often the most memorable. It extols the importance of love and family and of forgiving when forgiveness is not easy. Many of the characters are as strong as the tree that grows outside Francie’s building—a tree that refuses to die.

Joan Blondell plays Aunt Sissy to Francie & Neely
I love this book. I’ve read it before and it never loses its appeal. I’ve cried through the sad parts and smiled at others. I love the characters for all their strengths and weaknesses. This is a book about life. An absolutely marvelous movie was made in 1945 starring Peggy Ann Garner and Dorothy Maguire. It cannot cover the entire novel, but it is a treat. I recommend this too.

I re-read the book recently for a library book discussion. I asked the men there if this novel had appeal for them as well, and the answer was an unqualified yes, so take A Tree Grows in Brooklyn along on your next trip.

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