April 24, 2009

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Review

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In the early 20th century Brooklyn New York, Francie Nolan is growing up. Brooklyn is a wild place- a place where children brawl in the streets and in the schoolyard. Francie would rather read on the fire escape than try to relate to her peers. She doesn't understand their rough ways. She is thoughtful and sensitive, more like her musical father than her practical mother.

Katie Rommely swore she would give up everything just to have handsome Johnny Nolan. She spends most of her life paying for that pledge. She scrubs apartment floors to keep a roof over her family's heads while Johnny occasionally makes money as a singing waiter when he's not drunk. Even though he's unreliable, the children have more affection for fun-loving Johnny than their stern mother. Katie makes nearly everything a hard learned lesson for the Francie and Nealy. She pins all her hopes for a better life on Nealy and knows she loves him more. Still, Katie is determined to have both her children educated.

Francie is by far the better student of the Nolan children. She loves school and thrives there. At times, it seems that getting an education is a dream as the family suffers tragedies over the years.

When I first started reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I was a bit confused as to what it was- a memoir? a series of anecdotes? The writing, while very good, is a bit distancing since I felt like I was just watching the Nolan's rather than being part of them. It starts with Francie at the age of eleven then after a few pages flips back in time to her parents' early married life before bringing us back to Francie's childhood again. By the time it ended, I understood what it was about. Basically, it's about the American Dream. Francie grows up poor and her mother struggles to keep them alive while educating the children so that will not have to struggle the way she did.

Francie grows from a shy and awkward child to a confident young woman. It's not an easy journey. Francie experiences much ugliness in her life, but strangely some of the simplest things are beautiful to Francie. Francie is a very lonely child. It doesn't help that the Nolan family never really fits in anywhere. Katie's expectations set them apart from the people who except their poverty. Katie fights it every step of the way. While Johnny is weighed down by it.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is somewhat an autobiography of Betty Smith's life. Some of Francie's experiences were her own. The book ends on a happy note, although I thought some of the things that happened were to be too good to be true. She implies that no matter how bleak things may seem there is a chance that circumstances can change, either through luck or hard work. Like the Tree of Heaven of the title, the hardy can survive anywhere.

Recommended

24 comments :

  1. Great review. This sounds like my kind of book.

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  2. I loved this book as a child, and wlhen my mother/daughter book club read it (I now have a 14-year-old of my own) it generated our liveliest discussion of the year. I really enjoyed the review and love it that you reviewed such a classic.

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  3. I love this book! It's been years since I read it, though

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  4. I read this in junior high or high school and I hadn't remembered much of the details until I read your review, but I do remember loving the book.

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  5. I saw this at a book sale and was on the fence about getting it. I didn't end up getting it.

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  6. I really liked this book. I read it just a few years ago after a life of knowing the phrase/title "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".

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  7. I'm glad guys guys who read it liked it!

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  8. Betty Smith started out as a playwright, and I think this really shows up in a positive manner in her writing.

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  9. I enjoyed this book, but your right in that it's kind of hard to classify. In some respects I don't think it had much driving plot! But it's a beautiful book, I thought.

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  10. Yes, definitely a character-driven book! I liked it when I read, it didn't rock my world or anything, but I thought it was a 'nice' and 'warm' book.

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  11. I read this book a while ago but I do remember that I really liked it.

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  12. This is one of my favorite books!

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  13. this book is a classic--i love to read it and usually pick it up every few years.

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  14. This was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager, and I still love it.

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  15. I rarely reread books. But I have reread this one. I'm glad you liked it, too!

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  16. Great recap! What a wonderful trip down memory lane. LIke many above, I loved this as a young teen. I wonder if it's just one of those books you need to read when you're younger to love.

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  17. I can't believe I still haven't read this book. You've put it back on my radar screen. Thanks for the review!

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  18. This is one of my favorite books. I also loved Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith.

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  19. Bybee- I can see that.

    Rebecca- Yes, there isn't much plot, just people living.

    Joanna- That's how I felt too.

    Carolyn- I can see how it would appeal to teen girls.

    Swapna- It fairly big but you could read it pretty quickly :)

    I'm glad so many of you had positive feelings toward it.

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  20. I read this for the first time in 2007, but I consider it to be one of my all-time favorites. It's definitely a book I'll revisit in the future.

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  21. I also enjoyed this one, but it was definitely a bit strange to get into at first... its not quite what I expected. I think the beautiful prose is what drew me in long enough to start really enjoying the journey.

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  22. I read this one a couple of years ago and wondered why it took me so long. I absolutely loved it. It's one of my favorite classics.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  23. I LOVED this book! It's a very quiet book. A book I wondered why I hadn't read before.

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  24. My parents were New Yorkers from the generation of Betty Smith. The book was a sensationi because not many female authors were known for best sellers, the frankness of the sexual situations (for the time), and the lead character being female and poor. The book was published in a miniature edition to be sent to American troops in World War II.

    We had the broadway album in the house, and yet I had not read the book until last year. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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