Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
Published 1943


I was born in Brooklyn and thought this book would appeal to me simply because of the setting; but the protagonist, Francie, is from a different neighborhood of Brooklyn that I am not familiar, and the story takes place in the early 1900s, whereas I grew up in the 70s.  Life was very different for Francie.  

My house in Gerritsen Beach

Nonetheless, this was an excuse for me to dig up old photographs.  Brooklyn was special to me for many years after I moved away but, as I have been living in California since 1982, the emotional connection to my birthplace has faded away.   I no longer feel the nostalgia of the place I grew up.

When we did live in Gerritsen Beach, my father took my brother and me all over Brooklyn, especially to Coney Island and Prospect Park, where he grew up.  He would often take us fishing in Sheepshead Bay or to one of the largest Brooklyn Public Libraries or the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  He showed us the statues and monuments all over the borough, and told us their stories.  I learned that there is much history and culture in Brooklyn; and while reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it transported me back seventy years before I was born, to the place I would later live, and I can imagine all the history that was there before me.

My dad in Sheepshead Bay

Since this story takes place in the early 20th century, it was the beginning of technological advancements - an exciting time for the United States; everything seemed possible.  America was in the middle of an immigration boom from Europe.  Many people settled in New York, and therefore, the reader may experience the different European heritages of Francie's neighborhood.  But there was also a time of uncertainty on the eve of World War I.
  
Famous landmarks at Coney Island

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming of age story that chronicled Francie's youth, from birth to sixteen.  Readers observe her disappointments, her joys, and everything in between.   She was faced with adversity, poverty, rejection, disappointment, unfairness, and inequality; there were so many things wrong with her world, but it was the reality of her world.  Nonetheless, she persevered because Francie was a tough girl.

The Wonder Wheel

What actually appealed to me was Francie's resilience and tenacity, which she inherited from her mother, her aunts, and her grandmother.  In addition to the aforementioned obstacles, some of the men in their world were not reliable.  I said some.  Hence, the women had to be resourceful in order to survive and take care of themselves and their families.

Francie learned early on that education (in part) was key to rise above hardships and obstacles.  With each generation, the women in Francie's family bettered themselves: Francie's grandmother could not read; but Francie's mother could, (though she never went to school); and Francie not only could read, but she would soon attend college.  Besides the benefits of education, Francie discovered the value of family.  When everything else seemed dire, being surrounded by family was encouraging.

My dad and me in front of the Cyclone

There was more to the story than Francie.  The author wrote about Francie's grandparents, aunts and uncles, and mother and father.  She described how Francie's parents grew up, met, and married.  I personally think Francie's mother made the error of pursuing Francie's father, chasing him away from his then-girlfriend.  But that is a discussion for another day.  None of the characters were perfect, and the author showcased the flaws in their personalities and relationships with one another.


Going over the Brooklyn Bridge, into Manhattan

Finally, I will add that there is a happy ending.  A very happy ending.  While the story ended just as life was improving for Francie and her family, the reader is assured that hard work has paid off.  So you may stop worrying about Francie.  She will take care of herself just fine.

View of the borough of Brooklyn from top of World Trade Center

P.S. 

You may have wondered what the tree in the title means.  There was a tree that grew in Brooklyn that was indestructible and could survive anywhere and under challenging circumstances.  Even if it was cut down or covered with cement, another sapling would find its way to sunlight.  That was Francie.  Nothing could discourage her or snuff out her dreams.  She would make it somehow.

10 comments:

  1. I really liked this book too, but having grown up in rural areas far from NYC, I didn't get the amazing personal connections to it like you did. Thanks for sharing all the pics from your life there!

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  2. Just love your photos. Thanks for sharing them. I had to laugh at the one of you and your dad because you looked like so many Italian girl friends of mine when I lived in New Jersey in the nineties.

    My then husband worked in Brooklyn Hospital and we only had one car between us so I often drove at all hours of the day to transport him there. We always crossed Canal Street on Manhattan (where the Chinese were ALWAYS having some kind of parade and made a five minute drive a half hour one). We'd cross the Manhattan Bridge, get off on Flatbush and cross over a side street where people were ALWAYS washing cars right out in the middle of the street, then turn right on, I think it was Ashland or DeKalb or something.

    The thing that struck me about the book was how proud people were then, no matter how poor they were. No one wanted to be a charity case, like when the rich girl was offering her doll. Things seem to have changed.

    I remember my grandmother and aunts telling me when I was young: Get your education! Get your education! People truly saw it as the way out of poverty. They were right, but now my mantra would be, get a GOOD education, not one public school provides.

    Thanks for the review and sparking the memories.

    I bought this book and read it while I was living in New Jersey.

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    1. How funny, you remember all those streets. Flatbush, being a really big street in Brooklyn, crossed over into my neighborhood. And if you ever fold your pizza slice when you eat it - which I STILL do - it is called "the Flatbush Fold."

      That is a great point about poverty and being proud. I remember it being very true. Family and community were more important than wealth, even if food was scarce. Yeah, things have changed. Families are different today, too. Maybe that is why.

      Yep, education is key, but because more people are educated, other things are necessary to stand out: like ambition and creativity. Those are more personal, and I'm afraid very lacking in people today.

      About the photo of my Dad and me - I had already been living in Cali for ten years. That was during one of my summer visits back to NY. So I was partially a Cali girl.

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    2. Yeah, all my friends were Jersey girls and I loved them. They liked my "Southern Drawl" which I didn't know I had but it certainly wasn't a Jersey accent. Up there my name pronounced "Sherin" in Florida (where I had moved from) became "Shahren".

      One more funny story about Brooklyn. My sister had come to visit me from Colorado. Because parking is so expensive, we parked in Brooklyn Hospital's parking because it was free for my husband. Then we took the subway in Manhattan for the day, then came back.

      The problem was the stop where we were to get off was closed for construction. So were they next few stops. We didn't know where to get off and panicked. Finally we got so claustrophobic that we got out at the next stop. I had no idea where we were and we couldn't find anyone who spoke English. I think everyone was from East Europe.

      I did remember the streets so we marched on for several blocks. My sister noticed that after a while we were the only white people in sight. She said, "I think we're going the wrong way."

      I said, "No, this is good." It was the right way because the hospital was in a predominantly black neighborhood. I was right and we got back to the car.

      I remember a pizza place right outside the hospital. Man! You can't beat it. That and Bagels.

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    3. "Shahren" - yep! I hear it.

      I commend you for riding the subway. I hated it as a small child even with my dad - and he was a cop w/ NYPD. Imagine me, intimidated about riding w/ a NYC cop?

      How scary, getting lost. But one thing about NY people, even though they get a bad wrap for being rude, most people are really nice. If you don't look like you are going to rip them off, most people are willing to go out of their way to help others.

      Nothing like NY pizza. During some of my pregnancies, I specifically craved NY pizza, and there was nothing I could do about it all the way on the west coast. : (

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  3. Thanks for this review. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been on my TBR list for a long time. I love stories about young people growing up in earlier time periods.

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    1. Well, if you love coming of age stories, in earlier time periods, this is the one.

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  4. I've never read this...saw the movie, but I hardly remember that...only that it was a little sad. Just one more to add to the TBR. Nice review.

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    1. Thanks, Joseph. I found the book very realistic. That is the way things were for children of immigrants. It reminded me the stories from both of my parents about growing up in Brooklyn.

      The sad part in this story was probably the loss of dad, who was a selfish alcoholic. He neglected his family and placed an undue burden on them, which was totally unfair. But gratefully, the ending was encouraging and hopeful. A happy ending. : )

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