“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
by Betty Smith
read by Kate Burton
produced by Harper Audio (2005)
Approx 15 hours

I’m not sure what it is but there is something about reading / listening to books about the early years of America and the struggles it took to live day by day that can put some perspective into your life. Yeah, times were different back then but if they can survive so can we. At least that’s what I get out of books like this. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” not only tells the story of a family’s struggle and determination around the turn of the century into the first World War, but also since it is set in that time provides an historical view. This novel approaches many issues that keep this one a book for the ages other issues the book addresses include: Man vs. his environment, Education, Coming-of-age/loss of innocence, Family, and Exploitation of workers and the poor.

The novel is split into five “books,” each covering a different period in the characters’ lives. Book One opens in 1912 and introduces 11-year-old Francie Nolan, who lives in the Williamsburg tenement neighborhood of Brooklyn with her 10-year-old brother Cornelius (“Neeley” for short) and their parents, Johnny and Katie. The family subsists on Katie’s wages from cleaning apartment buildings, pennies from the children’s junk-selling and odd jobs, and Johnny’s irregular earnings as a singing waiter. His alcoholism has made it impossible for him to hold a steady job, and he sees himself as a disappointment to his family as a result. The only antidote to alcohol Johnny accepts is coffee, which enables him to come out of and sometimes stay out of his alcoholic stupors but gives his behavior a manic quality nearly as closely associated with his alcoholism as the barbiturate itself. Francie admires him, however, and relies on her imagination and her love of reading to provide a temporary escape from the poverty in which she lives.

Book Two jumps back to 1900, with the meeting of Johnny and Katie – the teenage children of immigrants from Ireland and Austria, respectively. Although Johnny panics when Katie becomes pregnant with first Francie and then Neeley, and begins drinking heavily, Katie resolves to give her children a better life than she has known. During the first seven years of their marriage, the Nolans are forced to move twice within Williamsburg, due to public disgrace brought about first by Johnny’s drunkenness and then by the children’s Aunt Sissy’s misguided efforts at babysitting them which is a bit comical but you can see the embarassment of the time. They arrive at the apartment introduced in Book One.

In Book Three, the Nolans settle into their new home and the children (now seven and six) begin to attend the squalid, overcrowded public school next door. Francie enjoys learning even in these dismal surroundings however the at the time the teachers seem to have it out for the poor children. So with Johnny’s help, Francie gets herself transferred to a better school in a different neighborhood. Johnny’s attempts to improve the children’s minds fail, but Katie helps Francie grow as a person and saves her life by shooting a child-rapist/murderer who tries to attack Francie shortly before she turns 14. When Johnny learns that Katie is pregnant once again, he falls into a depression that leads to his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia on Christmas Day 1915. Money from the family’s life insurance policies and the children’s after-school jobs keeps the Nolans afloat in 1916 until the new baby, Annie Laurie, is born in May and Francie graduates from grade school in June. The latter occasion allows her to finally come to terms with the reality of her father’s death.

At the start of Book Four, Francie and Neeley take jobs since there is no money to send them to high school. Francie works first in an artificial-flower factory, then in a press clipping office. Although she wants to use her salary to start high school in the fall, Katie decides to send Neeley instead, reasoning that he will only continue learning if he is forced into it while Francie will find a way to do it on her own. Once the United States enters World War I in 1917, the clipping office rapidly declines and closes, leaving Francie out of a job. After she finds work as a teletype operator, she makes a new plan for her education, choosing to skip high school and take summer college-level courses. She passes with the help of Ben Blake, a friendly and determined high school student, but fails the college’s entrance exams. A brief encounter with Lee Rhynor, a soldier about to ship out to France, leads to heartbreak after he pretends to be in love with Francie when he is in fact about to get married. In 1918, Katie accepts a marriage proposal from Michael McShane, a pipe-smoking retired police officer who has become a wealthy businessman and politician.

As Book Five begins in the fall of this same year, Francie – now almost 17 – quits her teletype job. She is about to start classes at the University of Michigan, having passed the entrance exams with Ben’s help, and is considering the possibility of a future relationship with him. The Nolans prepare for Katie’s wedding and the move from their Brooklyn apartment to McShane’s home, and Francie pays one last visit to some of her favorite childhood places and reflects on all the people who have come and gone in her life. She is struck by how much of Johnny’s character lives on in Neeley, who has become a talented jazz/ragtime piano player. Before she leaves the apartment, she notices the Tree of Heaven that has grown and re-sprouted in the building’s yard despite all efforts to destroy it, seeing in it a metaphor for her family’s ability to overcome adversity and thrive.

Although the book addresses many different issues–poverty, alcoholism, lying, etc.–its main themes is the need for tenacity: the determination to rise above difficult circumstances. There are moments in the book when I question the reality, but then I have to remind myself it is just a novel. For instance, the Nolans are financially restricted by poverty but yet always seem to find ways to enjoy life and satisfy their needs and wants. Francie can become intoxicated just by looking at flowers. Like the Tree of Heaven, Brooklyn’s inhabitants fight for the sun and air necessary to their survival. Sure there are some moments where it is beyond reality but that is what makes the magic of a good book.

The reader, Kate Burton, does a superb job in reading the book and applying the Brooklyn accents at the right moments to keep you in the realistic moments.