Saturday, August 6, 2011

[TSS] Musings: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn first edition cover
Ohmigoodness, why have I missed out on this book for so long?  I started the year completely mesmerized by another modern classic, Cry, the Beloved Country, and now I am once again in awe.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is definitely one of my top reads this year.  I highly recommend it to anyone who likes reading.  Specifically?  To anyone who enjoys reading good books.  (With beautiful covers, such as the one pictured to the left here, the cover of the first edition)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is mostly the story of Francie Nolan, but also the story of anyone growing up poor in early 20th century Brooklyn.  Francie's parents married young and had children before they were ready, driving her father to alcoholism due to the pressure of family life and her mother to take up the reins of being the head of household.  Her mother (Katie) works very, very hard so that Francie and her brother Neely can attend school for as long as possible and hopefully never be forced to leave school and work instead.  Francie loves school and in the seventeen years we spend with her, she holds fast to her dream of becoming a writer- a writer who speaks the truth and shows that poverty is not ugly, and that life is more like ocean waves, ebbing and flowing, than a straight line set out for you right at the start.

Every character in this book is so nuanced and so richly portrayed.  Francie's father, Johnny, is a man who crumbles under the weight of his obligations.  He doesn't work consistently, and he spends a lot of what he earns on alcohol.  But he also has a beautiful singing voice, knows just what to say, and instills in his children a sense of pride and honor.  He was one of my favorite characters and, like Francie, while I mourned what he could have been, I loved him just as he was, too.

Francie's mother Katie was another fantastic character.  From the beginning, it's established that she prefers Neely to Francie, and so we see their relationship develop over time, always with that tension there.  Katie is the way I imagine many poor women of the era to have been- the backbone of the family who held everything together and instilled faith in everyone that things would turn out alright, even if she herself didn't believe it.  One of my favorite things about Katie was her ability to splurge once in a while.  She saved so much and worried constantly about money, but, for example, she let Francie throw away a cup of coffee every day because she wanted her daughter to know one small part of being rich, of having more than necessary and availing herself of the luxury to throw things away.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Every character in this book is lovely, but I have a special place in my heart for Francie.  She is like the much more realistic and pragmatic Anne Shirley who grew up in poverty, saw ugliness, created beauty and made the best of every situation.  And loved writing.  The episodic nature of this book reminded me of. To Kill a Mockingbird.  Both books deal with really heavy and important topics (race in that case, poverty in this one), but do so through the eyes of children that you fall completely in love with.

But don't let my comparing this book and the characters that populate it to others like it mislead you- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn owns its territory and succeeds completely.  Francie is a sweet, kind child who grows up learning that lies can be useful, teachers aren't always right, and boys can break your heart.  She is not a commanding person, really, but she is a commanding presence in this book that captures an era and place so deftly.  It's a beautiful story with excellent characters, and it pulled me in completely.  I loved this book, I loved Francie, and I loved the beginning, middle and ending.  Highly recommended.

29 comments:

  1. What lovely reflections on this book! I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the first time when I was in the fifth grade - it was the first hardcover book I owned and it's always had a special place in my heart and on my shelf. I read it again a few years ago and loved it just as much as an adult.

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  2. I loved this book when I read it! I keep saying I must reread it and then never do... I say it again, though, I really must reread it...

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  3. This is one of my most favorite books. I received it second hand when I was eleven and I still have it on my saver shelf. It's time to read it again!

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  4. It makes me so happy to hear how much you like this one, and your reaction to Johnny specifically. Many people just despise him, but I loved him for who he was, even if I didn't love all his decisions. This is one of those books I go back and reread every few years. I only discovered it about five or six years ago, but am so glad to have read it!

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  5. I have been flirting with reading this or renting the movie for so long, and haven't been pushed over the edge yet. But comparing Francie to Anne Shirley just might do it for me!

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  6. Alyce - So many people read this book when they were so young! It's interesting as there are so many big topics in there that I don't know if I'd understand quite so well at an early age. So I'm glad you read it again, too :-)

    Kailana - Haha, I do that all the time, say that I'll reread a book and then not do it. I think this would stand up well to a re-read, though.

    Carol - Yes, I'm so glad I made the decision to read it while in NYC! I don't know when I'd have read it otherwise.

    Amanda - Wow, I think he'd be a hard guy to hate, actually. He's got flaws, but so does everyone else in the book and he's portrayed so kindly by Smith.

    Jill - Haha, you always toy with me that way, saying you'll read an author or book that I love but never doing it. I'll believe you when you read Terry Pratchett :-P

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  7. This is one I've heard about consistently for at least a decade, but I've, for whatever reason, never picked it up. Like The Things They Carried, there is just something about this book that keeps me from reading it despite the fact that the plot sounds awesome. Strange.

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  8. I read this one last year for a bookclub, and totally feel in love with it. It was the prefect mix of character and plot, and I just ended up loving Francie. It was a book with a lot of issues in it, but they were all presented so beautifully and so full of humanity. I am so glad that you loved this book! It was one of the best books I had read in a long time and I still think on it now and again. Fantastic review!

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  9. Thanks for reviewing this. I loved the old black and white film of it, and hadn't even realised that it was based on a book. Will definitely look it out.

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  10. I really should go and check the library page, one never know ;)

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  11. I feel like this is one of those books that is often overlooked. I know a lot of my book club members felt the same way when we read this last year. I was the only one that had read it previously, and the rest of them were lamenting the fact that they had waited so long to read it.

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  12. Now you AND Rachel have strongly endorsed this book, and yet somehow I can't shake the feeling that I'm just not going to like it. (I just wrote "look it" four times in a row. I think I must just be tired.) It just looks dreary! I don't know why...

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  13. Trisha- I have books like that, too! Of course I can't think of any off the top of my head right now, but there are several that people rave about that I just don't think sound *quite* interesting enough for me. It's ok- if you want to read this one some day, it will be waiting patiently for you :-)

    Zibilee - Ooh, I'm going to go look up your review now! I definitely agree with you about it sticking with the reader, too.

    Book-hound - Yes, it's based on an excellent book! I'll have to watch the film now.

    Blodeuedd - Ooh, you should. It's worth it.

    Lola - Yes, I wonder if it's out of fashion now or something to that effect. I don't know as many people who've read it before, or at least not as many as I'd expect.

    Jenny - I think you are just projecting your hatred of that awkward situation onto the book, and quite unjustifiably! It's good! Not dreary at ALL, actually.

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  14. I felt the same way when I read this for the first time a couple of years ago, wondering how I had managed to never have read it. Maybe that made the experience all the better. The part where she throws away the coffee is one of the most memorable parts of the book for me. This is truly a book that you just fall in love with!

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  15. You've captured my thoughts on this book exactly! I absolutely loved it and only read it for the first time a few years ago. Better late than never!

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  16. I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn five years ago. I loved it, and glad you did too. I didn't feel any hate or dislike for Johnny because Francie just couldn't. You might like Betty Smith's "Joy in the Morning" because it takes place in Ann Arbor, but I think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the more powerful book.

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  17. I read this book ages ago when I was a young girl and while my memories about the specifics involved are hazy, I do know that I liked it a lot. I wish I remembered it better than I do, so I think I'll need to revisit this one in the near future. Isn't it lovely when you discover a book that you just adore?

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  18. I adore this one. I read it and my only disappointment was that I didn't read it when I was younger. Francie is so wonderful and the book is just divine. Read I Capture the Castle if you haven't already. That's another one that made me feel the same way.

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  19. Like Steph, my memories of this book are hazy. Except I read it more recently than she did! I do remember loving it...but it seems like it's deserving of a re-read.

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  20. I love, love, LOVE this book. I didn't read it until I was about 16, but I knew then it would be a favorite for life. I love the detail of the characters and how well we know them by the time the story ends. I do love Johnny, even with his faults. His faults are what make him human, right?

    I like the connection you make to Lee's book. Now that I've finally reread that one, I do see some similarities!

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  21. This is one of my all-time favorite books, so I'm very glad you loved it :)

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  22. I haven't read this book yet somehow feeling that I missed the right timing - that I should have read it when I was a pre-teen or teenager, and now it's too late. But obviously it is not too late, based on your review and what others have said in the comments.

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  23. Oh my gosh, I've never made the connection to Anne Shirley, but you're so right! I first read this book in high school and it just cemented my lifelong belief that I should be a librarian so I can TELL PEOPLE TO READ THIS.

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  24. Shelley - Yes, I love the coffee thing, too. It's such a simple but definitive act.

    Anna - I agree. I wish I knew all the books that I haven't read yet but will leave me with this blissful feeling upon completion. *Happy sigh.*

    Valerie - Yes, I agree. I like Johnny a lot. I was excited to read your comment on Joy in the Morning because I thought maybe it was a continuation of Francie's story, but it doesn't look like it. Which is ok :-)

    Steph - YES, that's one of the best feelings ever!

    Melissa - I don't really feel disappointment about not reading it when I was younger. I think I appreciated a lot about it now that I wouldn't have caught onto at a younger age. But I seem to be in the minority!

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  25. softdrink - I definitely think this will be one of those books I always want to reread, and even if I never do, I will always have that fond memory of it. Will have to watch the movie, too!

    Allie - I would use the same number of "loves" and the same amount of emphasis in describing my feelings about this book.

    Lu - I am, too!

    Christy - No, absolutely not too late! Give it a try.

    Kari - Oooh, what a great book to inspire you! I love it, love it, love it, too.

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  26. I never have read this one! It sounds much more interesting than when my HS English teacher was raving about it.

    But - she tossed coffee? Oh noes!!! My caffeine addicted soul shrank just a tiny bit more. ;)

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  27. I have yet to read this - missed it somehow when I was a kid. But see it often as a MUST-read and I do want to!

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  28. This is one of my favourites too. (And the movie is delightful as well.) Did you find yourself considering a resolution to read through your local library starting with "A"?

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  29. I remember weeping at the end of this book. Maybe it was because of the big, NYC Irish family I belonged to, but the book was so very real to me, I felt like I would miss Francie terribly when I finished. Your review made me realize I owe her another visit!

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