Betty Smith – A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Posted on | June 18, 2015 | No Comments

Oh, where do I begin? Remember Cassandra from I Capture The Castle? She is one of my favourite narrators and I believe you’d be hard pressed to find a character as charming as her. Betty Smith’s Francie comes close. She doesn’t have the pleasure of living in a dilapidated-yet-romantic castle as Cassandra did – instead, she’s over the sea and far away in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1912-1919.

At the outset, Francie is eleven years old and she’s a reader. That’s all I need to get that instant connection to a protagonist.

Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.

She lives with her parents and her younger brother, and despite being a family of slender means, they are cheerful and grateful. Her mother, Katie, desperately wants a better future for her children, and she leans heavily on the two pieces of advice her own mother gives her: ensure that her children are educated (“Everyday you must read one page of some good book to your child.”) and save every penny possible in order to purchase land which can be handed down to the children. In addition, this piece of advice from Katie’s mother – a first generation immigrant –  is priceless as she insists that the children must believe in ghosts, fairies, and Santa:

“[T]he child must have a valuable thing called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing things not of this  world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.” 

However, while Katie tries her level best to ensure a better life for her kids, her husband – a happy-go-lucky drunk – is a singing waiter whose priorities differ from Katie’s. He’s the good cop to Katie’s bad cop, as he looks out for their feelings and tries to ensure they’re happy. For example, while Katie’s focused on ensuring her children get educated at the local school where they’re treated like second class citizens, he acknowledges Francie’s desire to go to a school slightly further away where the quality of education is superior and makes it happen much to Francie’s delight.

It’s such incidents that make the book a treat. There’s heartbreak, grief, and loss, but still, there’s always a light shining at the end of the tunnel – a glimmer of hope, if you will. No matter how dire circumstances get, Francie and Katie do their level best to not get completely down and out. It’s almost like Pope addresses them in his poem:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is but always to be blessed. 

However, there are parts of the book that are bleak and  reflective of the times. One of their neighbours – a young, attractive woman with a child, sans a husband – is mocked relentlessly by her neighbours for having the gall to take her child out during the day. Yes, it’s rage-inducing, but then one has to remember that this was a century ago – and, sadly, there are parts of the world today where this is still the case.

Or, how Francie is the one who has to temporarily drop out of school to earn money while her younger brother carries on studying, despite she being the one more academically inclined and he being more than willing to take up a job.

But – I digress.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more likeable child in fiction, and you’ll be glad that you embarked on her journey with her as she finds her feet in the world and figures out the best course of action no matter what the situation.

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