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Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Laureneverafter @laureneverafter

The World Was Hers For The Reading: Thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

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I got the idea to read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when my Poppop asked me if I wanted to go to New York for my graduation trip. Truthfully, I had spotted several editions of the book in the bookstore and had made a mental note to buy it sometime. Passing by the book in the store was one of those constant occurrences you know will come of something in due time. Like during my sophomore year of college when Wal-Mart seemed to release a lot of River Phoenix movies around the same time, and then my Women’s Psychology professor had our class watch a clip from Stand By Me thus piquing my curiosity about River Phoenix so much, I had to go out and buy the movie. What followed was an almost year-long period of mourning that is a story in itself.


What really made me want to by ‘Tree’ was the next idea I got of reading the book before going to New York and having my picture taken with it by a tree in Brooklyn. That didn’t happen for two reasons: 1) I never got to read the book, or start it for that matter, before our trip, because riding in a motor home for hours on end had me indisposed the entirety of the drive, and 2) my family didn’t want to leave Manhattan. I vowed to myself that I would, somehow, make it back up to the boroughs and have my blasted picture taken with the book. by a tree. in Brooklyn.

Actually reading the book didn’t begin until I returned home. By that point, I was less excited by the idea of it, because I was disappointed about not getting the picture. However, I opened to the first page one day at work during some downtime and met a young Francie Nolan. Well, first I met Brooklyn. Then I met Francie and her family, then became more intimate with the Rommely sisters, the Nolan brothers, and the town of Williamsburg, before reverting back to Francie. Reading ‘Tree’ was less like reading a novel at times and more like reading a series of short stories about the same family. Anna Quindlen was right in her Foreword of the novel when she said that it “is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.” ‘Tree,’ I discovered while reading, is not a book that can be fully appreciated on the first read. It is one of those books that begs two or three re-reads before a person can really begin to understand it. I found myself highlighting passages early on, because I knew that I could only grab onto so much through the first attempt. When reading ‘Tree,’ one gets the sense of creating along with the author the story that inhabits the pages. Like Francie, we must try to imagine all that we can about the book so that it becomes like we’re creating with the author. Only then can we truly empathize with its core – a simply sewn, yet complex journey of, not just one family, but all families.

I often found myself highlight the final paragraphs of chapters the further I got into the book. One of the ending passages that stuck out to me was the close of Chapter 8 when the narrator describes to us who Francie is.

“She was all of these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only – the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life – the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

After reading that passage, I realized just how similar I was to Francie. My family wasn’t poor growing up. I never suffered the same troubles as the Nolan children. However, I was the first in my family to go to college. I was also taken with reading and writing from a young age, the former especially. I remember my mom telling me a story of how I sat in my aunt and uncle’s bedroom one night with a book open in my lap. I had not learned yet how to read, but conjured up a story straight from the pictures, sounding as though I was a seasoned storyteller. Even in high school when certain girls would notice my books and share with me their love for reading, it didn’t sound the same as it sounded for me. I loved reading. I loved stories. So much that I couldn’t imagine my life having to do with anything else but words. And Francie knew it, as well. She had that same feeling through childhood.

“…the world was hers for the reading.”

Reading wasn’t just a hobby. Reading was a way of life. A belief system. And writing was intangibly connected to that. Writing was in her thoughts. Francie thought like a writer. When she had a thought it streamed through her mind as easily as if she’d penned the words to paper. But her life wasn’t just about reading and books and plays. It was about words and action and perception. Her life was about her mind. About how she analyzed and deduced the world around her. It was about seeing Papa in Neeley, it was about making her way to college despite her lack of a high school education, it was about keeping her head when a strange boy made strong advances, it was about knowing a teacher was wrong without being brainwashed into believing she was right. When I think of Francie Nolan, I think of words such as “firm” and phrases like “standing her ground” and “a mind of her own.”

For Francie, life was about telling the truth, and that truth came to her through writing. As her teacher told her in Chapter 26, “‘In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should’ve happenedTell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.’ It was the best advice Francie ever got.”

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