A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

atreegrowsinbrooklyn

It’s not very fun to write a review of a book that is beloved. You either love it and you write a review saying, “Like your big brother and your 11th grade English teacher, I, too, loved Catcher in the Rye” and who cares, or you hate it and you write a review saying, “I don’t really get why people like The Fountainhead.” And who cares?

So, I didn’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn looking to review it or even post much about it on here. I was reading it because it’s been on my shelf for too long and it fulfills one of my goals for my Summer Reading Challenge. But this book got under my skin, so I wanted to write a brief post about it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Now that I’ve read it I realize how few classics are about a young women’s coming-of-age in the strict definition of the term; so many novels about young women are plain love stories. This is not a love story, it’s a survival story. Francie grows from a poor little girl to a young woman going off to college; in between she is forced to drop out of school to help support her family financially so her brother gets to remain in school. She watches her father deteriorating from alcoholism and her mother struggle to balance motherhood and working in poverty.

The story of Francie’s family is fascinating in its stark realism, in the ways that it deals with how idealistic people can either stubbornly keep on or be ruined in the face of poverty. It’s written in a sparsely beautiful way, only occasionally sentimental. It has the warmheartedness and redemptive qualities a story about growing up in a certain place should have. And what a sense of place this story had. 

While the Brooklyn in this novel is long gone, so many of the themes it touches on are current. Smith writes on issues of sex, childbirth, class, privilege, and disappointing husbands so frankly I wonder why more people don’t call A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a feminist classic.

I think this could easily take the place of Catcher in the Rye in many junior year English class. Kids would probably hate it just as much, but the English teachers would find so much to discuss. That’s about the highest compliment a classic novel can get, am I right?

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