Classics…Who Needs ‘Em?
By Darla Gaylor

There are those days that I just get tired of trying to find something new and ground breaking to read. So, I revert to the classics. Otherwise know as “books we all should have read by now,” the classics are books that have stood the test of time- and out of which both high school and college teachers enjoy wringing every last bit of (enjoyment and) knowledge (both real and imagined) in order to stoke (or douse) the fires of your burgeoning intellect.

From the ancient texts of Socrates to the great works of Shakespeare to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and beyond, there are just some books we need to read. Despite the likelihood that each new author hopes his work will achieve that coveted status, the chances are slim. After all this time there are multitudes of books which have been published, but only a small percentage are dubbed “classics” in due time. And despite our modern audio/visual age, “seeing” a book on the silver screen is just no substitute for reading a good classic.

What to Read and Why

To assist you with your selection, there are resources on the Internet and in bookstores. Keep in mind, however, that every newspaper, library association, publisher, and college PhD is going to have their own “must read” list for you to consider, and they can be as varied as your children’s personalities.

As I noted above, many so-called classic books were likely part of your high school and college curricula. It is even very possible that the mere mention of a classic, sends your mind spinning back to sophomore English class when you were first introduced to Dickens or Shakespeare, with no idea whatsoever why these two long dead British guys were of such import to your pubescent brain (that’s how I always felt in Algebra 2).

What makes a book a classic anyway? That, too, is a question that is been hashed and rehashed throughout the years. One poster on the Literature Network Forums requires a work to meet five different criteria, while another notes just one. According to Ester Lombardi at About.com, “[a] classic usually expresses some artistic quality – an expression of life, truth and beauty.” I like to think a classic has something to teach people in the modern era, no matter its age. I also believe a classic should be accessible to most of us, not just the academics.

The Selection

“Dear God,” she prayed, “Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life… Let me be ragged or well dressed… Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” 1

As I started pulling together my ideas for this column, I thought I’d recommend a few classics I loved, like Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or To Kill a Mockingbird . Maybe throw in a few lesser read books by well known authors, like Austen’s Northanger Abbey or Charlotte Bront’s Villette, and I expected I’d be done with it. However, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected once I start reading and researching.

Betty Smith’s 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book that I picked up in late March, having never read it. I had heard about the book, of course, and seen parts of the 1945 movie, which garnered several Academy Awards, but never had I taken the time to delve into its pages.

A short way into A Tree Grows , I knew I had stumbled upon a true gem, certain I had to do a whole column on just it. What follows is a breakdown of several key elements I drew out of Smith’s masterpiece, aspects that spoke deeply to me as a reader and which I think meant much to Betty Smith, as the woman whose life was the archetype for her main character, young Francie Nolan.

The first striking element of Francie’s story is the poverty of the early 20th century slums of Brooklyn, New York. One of the questions posed in The Reading Group Guides for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is: Could it be argued that the main character of the book is not Francie but, in fact, Brooklyn itself? My short answer is, “Yes, of course.” Smith certainly spent as much time describing the city as she did Francie, describing Francie’s youth in the context of Brooklyn. However, it was largely through the eyes of Francie, and to a lesser degree, other family members, that we came to know the city at all. And it was through Francie and Brooklyn we came to know the poverty of urban America at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a place where you either pulled yourself up and survived through hard work and stringent budgeting or you floundered and failed. Hunger for some was a part of daily living, with starvation being staved off by only stale bread and weak coffee some days, by Smith’s description. Welfare was nothing near the system that it is now. There were charities, which some relied upon, but many Brooklynites were too proud to ask others to support them. Indeed, the painful, wretched destitution of Francie’s Brooklyn neighborhood is as real and as prominent in this novel as if it were a character of its own.

Keeping with the heaviness of her life in poverty, loneliness was another ever present element in Smith’s Brooklyn. Little Francie Nolan was terribly isolated from children in her same circumstances. One issue that seemed to begin, or at least not ease her isolation, was the fact that her mother, Katie, kept her out of school until both she and her younger brother could start together. So, she was seven before starting first grade, yet she could probably read better than most of the fifth graders! Katie had taught her kids to read very early on from the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakepeare . Nevertheless, if it wasn’t her age, it was her clothes. If it wasn’t her education, it was her lack of money. Her younger brother and her often absent father were the closest things she had to friends until she was in her early teens. Katie’s sisters, especially Sissy, the black sheep, helped mitigate her “separateness,” but no one was a real friend. There were times while reading about Francie that I just ached for her, but she proved herself a survivor time and again. In many ways, the ability she developed to cope with her loneliness assisted in propelling her out of the restrictive impecuniousness of her childhood.

In contrast to the harsh reality of life in the slums, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also grasps the smallest details of beauty in its midst. Simple pleasures are counted as the next element I drew out of Smith’s book. From the solitary “Tree of Heaven” that dotted the Brooklyn landscape, being “the only tree that grew out of boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps.,” 2 to the childhood joys of penny candy at the local nickel-and-dime store, bartered piano lessons, street musicians, and a comical organ grinder’s monkey, there were bits of bright light in that pitiless tenement district. Much like expressing herself through song provided relief from the sadness of life for Annie in the musical of the same name, star gazing and enjoying a weekly trip to the local lending library did the same for young Francie Nolan. Expertly, Smith intwined these small and simple pleasures throughout the story. By doing so, she added a touch of much needed diversion to Francies’ life, and a little levity for the reader, too.

Among the golden moments in Smith’s novel, is the relationship between Francie and her loving-though-feckless father, Johnny. An aspiring singer and interminable dreamer, Johnny Nolan married for passion, expecting his life to be one unending song and dance with Katie. However, subdued by the unexpected news of a pregnancy a month into their marriage, Johnny realized his dreams would never come to fruition. Instead, he now had a family to support; and he turned to the bottle to find solace. Always singing, always pleasant, but often drunk, Johnny was the world to Francie. He was her champion and hero, though she knew his drinking was the cause of many of the family’s woes. Nevertheless, he was always “Papa” and Francie was his “Prima Donna.” Together they shared a familial tenderness for one another that was even stronger than that of father for son or mother for daughter in the Nolan family.

As Francie progresses through school, she becomes quite a writer. Well thought of and distinguished by her teacher for her ability to express things so artfully, Francie is shocked when she begins receiving C’s on her papers, in place of the usual A’s. As far as she knew, they only thing that had changed recently was her subject matter. Instead of writing about false beauty, butterflies, and fluffy, happy subjects, she had begun to write about her father. In her newest essays, she expressed her love for him, despite his alcoholism and the family’s hardships, this was not something of which her teacher approved. In an after school conference, after a fourth C is given for one of her essays, the teacher scolds her for writing such “sordid” stories, telling her, “…poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We admit those things exist [, b]ut one doesn’t write about them.” 3 Crushed by her teacher’s insult for only a moment, Francie eventually decides to burn all of those meaningless A papers, cherishing instead those unearned C’s. This as another testament to the bond between her and her Papa, and a wonderful example of Smith creating redemptive respites from the sadness that hovers throughout A Tree Grows.

The book is similar to Wuthering Heights, in that despair, gloom, disappointment, pain, sorrow and desolation are all feelings one senses while reading the story of Francie Nolan and her Brooklyn neighborhood. Yet, different because hopeful, resilient, faithful and strong are each words that never crossed my mind during the entirety of Emily Bront’s lauded work, though they perfectly describe Francie by the end of Smith’s. While her childhood may not have been trouble-free, and her story is certainly not an entertaining read, what Francie made of her life with the small, significant opportunities she was given make this book an inspiration and a joy. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is, indeed, a true classic in every sense of the word.

Talk Amongst Yourselves, Please!

While this month’s column is not as long or as expansive as my usual, I hope I at least imparted a bit of the fondness I quickly developed for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , and most especially, for Francie. I just hate to see children in pain, it gets to me every time. But even more, I cheer for the disadvantaged who rise to the occasion through hard work and perseverance, which is exactly what Francie did. The wisdom of elders, the drive to achieve more than is expected , and even the politics of poverty, are three other noteworthy elements I had hoped to discuss this month. Alas… Let me know what you discover about Betty Smith’s well designated “classic.”

Letters from Readers & Books They’ve Recommended

One reason for my brevity this month is YOU! I didn’t want to bloviate too long this month, because I have desperately wanted to give you some space for a while now. I’ve gotten some terrific letters these past few months, with a number of wonderful book recommendations. I hope to get to all of them…eventually!

I responded to each reader individually, so for the sake of space I won’t comment here. But I truly enjoyed your stories and thank you for your suggestions. I never knew how fantastic receiving letters from “strangers” could be! And since reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (*****), I can say I have an even greater appreciation for them.

Very sincerely, Darla


* Anonymous

If you like a mystery with a laugh, try the Southern Sisters mysteries. The author is unfortunately deceased so the series is limited to 6 books. The first one is Murder on a Bad Hair Day. How could you go wrong with a title like that? There are two sisters, one wacky, and one that is actually a positive example of a good marriage in today’s literature.

In regards to dysfunctional families, I recommend Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending. It is about grown up siblings that have to take a good look at their past and decided if it is worth the effort of “mending” their relationships.

* A Partial List from V (her commentary added ):

We Were Not Alone: How an LDS Family Survived World War II Berlin, Patricia Reese Roper and Karola Hilbert Reece. This was fascinating and truly a testament of the Lord’s protection of the humble. It gave me courage for the trials I know are coming to America.

Thirsting for God: The Spiritual Lessons of Mother Teresa, by Dr. Lou Tartaglia
May 2006. Book on tape. Narrated by Dr. Tartaglia with inserts of recorded talks given by Mother Teresa. Really amazing to hear her soft-spoken voice as she teaches wisdom with wit. 10.

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral, Found this on the Library’s “New Books” cart. Took it home and laughed and laughed. Good recipes, too!

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
October 2006. Excellent book, one which I would like to re-read. Frankl details his life in a Nazi prison camp and relates how any type of suffering can be used for good if the sufferer knows there is a real purpose in it. My rating: 10

* From Gerry B.

If you have not yet read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, I highly recommend it. Guernsey Island is just off the coast of Great Britain and was occupied by German’s during WWII. This is a story about the people of the island and how they coped during the occupation. It is written in the form of letters. Delightful.

* From Paula B.

I enjoyed very much your article on the mystery books series that you would recommend. You are right that sometimes we get caught up in reading heavy and dramatic or instructive books and it is good to have some reading that is a little lighter. I discovered this several years ago and, like you, have discovered the joys of The Cat Who… mysteries (I’ve read about 2/3 of them) and the At Home in Mitford books. As I have searched for other books and series, I have relied on friends and librarians to. [direct me to] more enjoyable, but also thought provoking series like the Goldie the Caterer books by Diane Mott Davidson…, The Mrs. Pollifax the Spy novels, and the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. I read a couple of books by Sister Perry – they are set in the Edwardian era and are rather dark and distressing, but very good stories. Then too, there are the classic Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle [ Sherlock Holmes] stories.

Thank you very much for your column and your insights into many types of books. I have heard good things from a few people about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency . I will definitely read these and the others you have suggested. I do a lot of quilting and like to have something to listen to as I work – most of these books I have listened to rather than read. The stories weave themselves into my work and I enjoy my work all the more for the double joy they bring me.

* From Kent B.

I’ve seen books from the Cat Who . series here and there and have wondered if I would enjoy them. After reading your review, I will find them at the library.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is also one of my favorite series. I love Precious, her practicality and common sense. The author is wonderful at detailing life in Botswana. I would love to visit there. I know though I would be disappointed that I couldn’t stop at the agency to have tea with Precious. To me she’s real.

* From Kay C.

Hey, just wondering if you have ever heard of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde? They were recommended to me by some friends a message board the first of January, and I’ve read the first two. The premise is that Thursday Next is a literary detective, who has to jump in and out of great works of literature to battle evil people who are trying to either take over the world, or change the literature. After I read the first book The Eyre Affair (she has to save Jane Eyre), I was keen to try the next one Lost In A Good Book. One reviewer called them ” Harry Potter for adults” Check them out. I’d be interested to hear what you think!

* From Marian R.

The series I’m currently fascinated with is the Lumby series…by Gail Fraser. So far three are out: The Lumby Lines ( the name of the town of Lumby’s newspaper), Stealing Lumby, and Lumby’s Bounty. In July, book 4, T he Promise of Lumby , will appear WE HOPE. There are three or four of us hooked on these stories…kind of like Northern Exposure , the old TV show. Art Poulin is the illustrator and they are adorable.

The premise is a couple from out of town buy the old monastery and turn it into their home, little realizing that the town is full of the most interesting characters, including a lawn ornament who plays a major role, and a couple of truant teen-agers. And fighting elderly brothers….it’s wonderful. The town is introduced to every visitor by a moose in town with a lawn chair hooked in his horns. Hmmmmmmmmm

Of course there’s The Elm Creek Quilts series by Jennifer Chiaverini with its 9 volumes plus recipes and 3 quilt pattern books. Also Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, volume 4 coming in March. And The Great and Terrible by Chris Stewart…SO exciting. 4 volumes. What about Prelude to Glory, Ron Carter,…Revolutionary War masterpiece.novel. 9 volumes

* From Judith L.

I greatly enjoyed your reviews in “Make ’em Laugh.” I have read two of the three series: Mitford and Ladies Detective Agency.

I wonder if you have read any of the non-current books by Georgette Heyer, who is dead now. She is the most charming writer and deals with even dislikable people so humanely. I don’t care for her murder mysteries at all, but her Regency books are calming, fun, and laugh-provoking. You might start with The Grand Sophy or Fredericka. Some are better than others.

* From Susan C.

I enjoyed your recent column. I was especially glad to see you review some books that are off the beaten path. I, too, love Mitford, and having cats, I am going to go in search of the cat books.

Susan Corpany is another Meridian contributor, you may check out her books: Brotherly Love, Unfinished Business, Push On and Are We There Yet?

* From Joan S.

I loved Crow Lake. I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. Thank you for a great recommendation.

The Glass Castle I had to read more slowly. I found myself feeling very cranky whenever I read it. In some tiny ways it is not too far removed from the life my children and I are currently living. A great read though – I liked it very much.

I haven’t found the Fiction Class anywhere yet, still hunting though..

* From Sharon C.

I loved your reviews. The only series that I am not familiar with is the Aunt Dimity one. The others I have read and enjoyed immensely. I look forward to discovering Aunt Dimity.

I recently discovered a wonderful Victorian mystery series by Emily Brightwell. The Mrs. Jefferies murder series… It was very well and humorously written…The series has new characters added occasionally and all of the characters grow and develop. The characters became old friends. Similar to those in Mitford and The Cat Who .

* From Karlene D.

Before Green Gables – The Prequel to Anne of Green Gables by Budge Wilson.

On Gold Mountain – A Hundred Year Saga of My Chinese American Family by Lisa See


Note: Letters may have been edited for space and (as little as possible) for content.

1  Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , (HarperCollins: New York, 1943) 421.

2. Ibid, 6

3. Ibid, 321

I’d love to know what books you’re reading and whether or not you’ve enjoyed my recommendations. Please, add me to your friends’ list at GoodReads.com (key word: Tennessee) or contact me via email at gaylor@meridianmagazine.com

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