A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

One Sentence Review: “Having an accent means you belong somewhere.” 

atreegrowsinbrooklyn

Pages: 528  Genre: Historical Fiction / Coming of Age / Classic 
Rating: 5 of 5 dolls named Mary
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.23 of 5 stars
Form Read: ebook   Purchased or Borrowed: Borrowed from the library 

Synopsis from Goodreads: The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

BACKGROUND

This book is one of the editions printed by the US Government during World War II as a pocketbook for soldiers to carry with them. It went through multiple printings during the course of the war, and prior to the author’s death, she still received letters from veterans describing what the book meant to them and how it helped them in a time of need. The importance of this book to the war effort is outlined in “When Books Went To War: the stories that helped us win WWII.”

The main theme of the book is one of self and family betterment. It’s improvement over generations, a little at a time. It’s also a book on poverty, growing up, and the little things we take for granted. It’s addiction and how the disease pulls you under.

“A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb.” 

WRITING STYLE & CONTENT

The book is well written and told from the perspective of a young girl growing up poor in Brooklyn. I’d believe the author had first hand experience with poverty, judging from how well she writes it. Coming from one of the poorest parts of the country, I hate the way people often portray the poor but Smith does an excellent job showing how as a child you’re ignorant of the fact of being a “have not” until you meet people who are “haves.”

Smith also does an excellent job showing the way communities like that band together but also how they shame members of their group because the idea of “looking down on” is something they rarely get to do, so if someone breaks the strict social rules for that group they are punished.

OVERALL FEEL

This book is one of those you read multiple times during your life, and each time you’ll have a different reading experience. The characters are well developed and as you gain more life experience you’ll relate to each of them in a slightly different way. I saw a lot of my younger self in the main character Francie. A hunger for knowledge and to make it out of where you’re from, but the desire never to lose those roots or feel ashamed of them.

“… the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” 

The impact of addiction on an individual and the family as a whole is also a major plot point throughout the book. The main character’s father is an alcoholic and you see how it changes him and how his family deals with his disease.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains–a cup of strong coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone–just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Though I originally borrowed this book, I plan on purchasing the ebook so I can read it again in a few years, and see how I have changed reflected in the book.

Find this book on: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N 

Bookish Questions: Do you remember a time when you were not a reader?

So I’ve decided to start a reading-centric theme a few times a month regarding questions related to reading or how books and literature impact our lives and the world around us. I’ve seen this question come up a few times on booktube and several blogs, and thought I’d address it now as the first question in this series.

BookishQuestionsNotAReader

For me this is a very clear-cut pre- and post-reading line. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in rural Arkansas and due to family circumstances, I didn’t have health insurance. I didn’t see the doctor unless the visits were covered by the state’s child vaccination program. This means I also didn’t have an eye exam until I started kindergarten (which I initially passed). About halfway through the year though I started having trouble in class and my teacher recommended the nurse give me an eye exam. I failed the test and they recommended my parents take me for a formal exam… which I failed epicly.*

Because this was such an important event in my life, I still remember most of the conversation with the doctor, which went a little like the dialogue below. I don’t remember if it was shapes or letters, since I was 5 and couldn’t read.

Doctor: [normal spiel about not being scared, it’s not going to hurt, and where to look]. Ok, I’m going to bring up the screen now and I want you to tell me what you see.

Me: …..

Doctor: [eye exam is up and ready to go but there is awkward silence] Are you okay? Can you tell me what you see?

Me: I’m waiting for you to put the test up. Is it up now?

I’m now a scientist, so you can imagine what it was like for an overeager, intelligent child to struggle learning how to read. I learned to read about a day after receiving my first pair of glasses. This revelation was amazing to me. It was like a light went off. I exclaimed when we left that “Trees have leaves!” and then launched in to an explanation to my mom that I KNEW trees had leaves, but I didn’t realize you can see them like this… which promptly made her cry.

I was just about to turn 6 when my very first pair of glasses came in, and went from a nonreader to reading at the 6th grade level in about two months, and then never looked back. There have been times in my life [cough, cough, graduate school] when I read less, but I always have been and always will be a reader.

*When they bring up the test all I see is a light spot on the wall. That’s it. My prescription is currently -11.0 (left eye) and -10.5 (right eye).