Some authors, it seems, were born to write one great book, and such was the case with Betty Smith. In 1943, at the age of forty-seven, she wrote a semi-autobiographical account of her Brooklyn upbringing. The book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, sold 300,000 copies in its first six weeks. That year everyone in America, from cabbies to college professors, was reading and talking about the remarkable story of Francie Nolan, a poor girl and her family struggling to survive in turn-of-the-century New York. Betty Smith became an instant celebrity, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. She penned three other novels and several plays, but never achieved the level of success and critical acclaim that attended her first major literary effort. Fifty years later the book is still a perennial favorite for schools and book clubs, with over a million copies sold. In 1995 The New York Public Library chose it as one of the “Books of the Century.”
We meet Francie Nolan, age eleven, reading on the fire escape of her Brooklyn tenement flat, her only companion a curious tree that grows out of the cement and curls around her lonely perch. A masterpiece of characterization, Francie is an unforgettable combination of artistic sensitivity and pure immigrant pluck. We wander the streets with Francie and her little brother Neeley in search of junk to sell for pennies, and accompany her on various, often terrifying errands for her hard-working janitress mother, Katie. Francie’s father, Johnny Nolan, is a loveable Irish drunkard whom she idolizes for his charm and talent. Her mother holds the family together with her hard work and determination, while her father lends it romance through his music and idealistic dreams.
Francie’s story is full of the grim realities that accompany poverty and ignorance: infant mortality, alcoholism, depression, disease and depravity dog the steps of the Nolan family. Nothing is sugar-coated or drenched in dreamy romanticism. When questioned about her motives for writing so frankly about issues many considered too daring Smith responded, “I had no axe to grind. I just wanted to write, but it seems I didn’t know my own strength.” Class struggle, the power of the unions, and the fraud and deception practiced on the illiterate immigrant population are all chronicled through the experiences of the Nolan family. Yet, this is not a depressing book, because Smith also captures the resilience and the indefatigable resolve of these same people to rise and improve their status through education and thrift. (Though she only finished grade school, Francie’s mother has her children read one page of Shakespeare and a page from the Bible every night, and by so doing pushes her children into a higher level of learning.) Brooklyn’s poor are the backbone of a rising nation, and Francie embodies the best of their kind.
My favorite moments in this tale are those that record the details of a daily life I would never otherwise understand. I liked the description of one week’s worth of dinners made from six loaves of stale bread. Here is Saturday’s feast:
“Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.” (42)
Smith is not a poetic writer, but she is a powerful one. Her descriptions have the searing accuracy that marks the finest prose. Here is a description of the moment when Francie finally summons the courage to look at her young father in his coffin. The careful attention to the kind of detail that a young girl would notice is what creates the authenticity of the moment, and moves us more than sentimentality:
“Francie stood there with her eyes on the ground, afraid to look. Finally she lifted her eyes. She couldn’t believe that papa wasn’t living! He wore his tuxedo suit which had been cleaned and pressed. He had on a fresh dicky and collar and a carefully-tied bow tie. There was a carnation in his lapel and, above it, his Union button. His hair was shining and golden and as curling as ever. One of the locks was out of place and had fallen down on the side of his forehead a little. His eyes were closed as though he were sleeping lightly. He looked young and handsome and well-cared for. She noticed for the first time how finely arched his eyebrows were. His small mustache was trimmed and looked as debonair as ever. All the pain and grief and worry had left his face. It was smooth and boyish looking…It was queer to see papa’s hands so quiet when she remembered them as always trembling…She stared steadily at his hands and thought she saw them move. Panic churned up in her and she wanted to run away…” (284)
After the publication of her novel, Betty Smith received thousands of letters from people who felt that she had captured something essential about growing up poor in America. She wrote, “Now, any time of the day, Box 405 is filled with letters from people who have read my book. Most letters begin: “This is my first fan letter. I’ve just read your book and I must tell you…” Or: “I’ve never lived in Brooklyn but someone must have told you the story of my life because that’s what you wrote.” Smith answered every letter, and said she felt a personal connection to each person who was touched by her book. I wrote the members of The Best Books Club and asked those who had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to write me about it. Their responses reflect the same diversity of opinion that greeted the book when it first appeared. One reader, obviously repelled by the book’s unflinching realism, wrote:
“Sorry, you contacted the wrong person. I have not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn past the point where the mother painted her breast to discourage the boy too old to still be nursing. Thank you for asking, though.”
More common, however, were comments from readers who have returned to the book over and over through the years, and shared it with their children. Two examples:
“I've read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn over and over again!! When each of my daughters grew up, I bought each of them their own copy, hoping they would love it as much as I always have. Some do - Some don't!! I've read Smith's other books as well, but nothing compares.”
“It's been many years since I read it, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains one of my favorite books. I remember wishing as I read it that I had written it or that I could write as beautifully about my own life. It has humor, well-developed and memorable characters, vivid description and unforgettable stories. It's a wonderful book that I want to re-read now that you've reminded me of it! Her other book about the young married couple, Joy in the Morning, is also an interesting book.