Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (5/5)

GoodReads says: 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.

I say: This is one of those classics that I’ve heard the title of but never the plot, so I have never really paid it any mind. However, a few weeks back a friend and I was discussing music and realised that a lot of the bands we like are from Brooklyn, New York, so I told myself that I should read this.

And it wasn’t a moment too soon.

I fell in such deep, aching and ridiculous love with this I can’t even know what to say other than beauty and pure perfection. Everything from the brilliant prose, to the carefully carved out characters and their destinies brought admiration of their struggle and strength.

In essence it’s a rather simple story that I’ve read a hundred times before; Francie Nolan grows up in a poor neighbourhood but wants nothing but to do and be better than those around her. Her intelligent and quiet observation of the world around her makes her seem older than she is, while her love for her alcoholic father and realisation that her mother loves her brother more makes her incredibly vulnerable and strong at the same time. We follow her from the age of 11 to 17 and one element that I really loved was her love of reading and how she explained the way she connected with the books.

There are a lot of issues presented in this book – and I could probably spend a lifetime discussing them – but I appreciate how un-preachy Smith is. Some may disagree with me, but we are dealing with a poor family and therefore their poverty is going to be at the centre of their lives. I enjoyed how detailed the descriptions were, like how we were told exactly how much fresh bread cost and how the children were sent out to buy day old bread instead; how they’d have to wait an extra hour to fix the heat in the house because coal was so expensive. These details really brought it home to me and I could visualise it all so clearly in my head. This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ story – far from it – nor is it a ‘I came from nothing and look at me now’ story either; it’s just a story.

The obviousness (and cheesiness) of the quote at the beginning of the book didn’t discourage me from further reading, and although it is beautiful it’s a tad much as well.

“There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly... survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”

Since I borrowed this book I had to look up the quote online, so I’ll assume it’s written correctly and that Francie at a later time elaborates:

“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful. But because there are so many, you just can't see how beautiful it really is.”

I do find those quotes beautiful; I just wish they were a bit more subtle. Either way, this book will be bought, re-read and endlessly referred to and spoken of to all who will listen.

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