Okay, so I know it’s an oldie-but-goodie type of book, but I think every adult in the US needs to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, like NOW. Gah. It’s good on so many levels. It’s part coming-of-age, part tragedy, part love story, and part kick-in-the-face to all of us who whine about our wifi being too slow.
In the event you’re like Sarah and me and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wasn’t required reading for you in school, here’s a rundown: Francie Nolan is a second-generation Irish-American adolescent girl growing up in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 1900s. She and her family are super poor, and while her dad, Johnny, is an extremely talented (and apparently gorgeous) singer, he is also a dreamer/alcoholic who can’t keep a steady job, so Francie’s mom, the beautiful but hardened Katie, has to pick up his slack by working hard cleaning apartment buildings.
Francie and her younger brother Neeley fall in line with all the other kids in their part of Brooklyn by collecting scraps of junk to sell to the pervy guy down the street for a penny, unknowingly being racist toward people of other cultures in their neighborhood, and generally being consumed by poverty.
The difference with Francie is that she has her dad’s dreamer qualities and loves to escape her pitiful life through books, which she reads in the shade of a tree by their apartment building. Francie just doesn’t quite fit in with any of the neighborhood kids, and she eventually ends up convincing her dad to lie about their address so she can attend a better school where she can actually get an education and not just humiliation. The reader can tell early on that Francie is special and has the potential to rise above her socioeconomic status, if only her dad didn’t suck at life.
Francie watches her parents’ complicated relationship: Katie and Johnny are the epitome of being in love, but Johnny can’t handle life well enough to provide for his family, so Katie kinda resents him for that, but at the same time, she loves him so much, she does what she can to protect him and support him despite his disease. AKA they are beautiful and dysfunctional and you JUST WANT JOHNNY TO GET HIS CRAP TOGETHER so they can all be happy and sing together and be the WWI version of the Von Trapps. (Hey, Katie is actually Austrian, so maybe there’s a way…)
I seriously get goosebumps just looking at this picture. Sarah and I are total TSOM nerds.
It doesn’t happen, and Johnny dies of pneumonia as a result of his alcoholism. Don’t crucify me here–I’m not spoiling anything. The book makes it clear from early on that Johnny dies. Knowing he is going to die makes reading up to that point all the more emotional. Seriously, you just love him so much but also want to punch him in the face because he could make things so good for his family.
Throughout their marriage, Katie had a tin-can bank hidden in the closet where she was saving up for land in the country where they could live happily ever after. When she had to drain the bank to pay for Johnny’s cemetery plot, she told her kids that they wouldn’t need the tin-can bank anymore anyway because they now owned a piece of land. [Insert ugly cry]
The book goes on to follow Francie’s completion of school, getting the shaft from her mother regarding going to high school (Katie can only afford for one kid to go, and she chooses Neeley because she know Francie has enough ambition to find a way for herself. Not a cool moment for me.), and going out in the working world. She stumbles some and she soars some, and she falls in true love and she falls in practical love. Francie has mama drama, but she always comes back around is able to understand her mom’s reasons for doing what she does because Francie is super intuitive and level-headed.
The reason I think this book should be read by all is because it appeals to basically anyone in any situation. Crappy relationship? Done. Money problems? Got it. Family issues? Yep. Want to go against all the naysayers and get out of your rut? Uh-huh. Think you’re better than everyone and poor people just need to get off their lazy butt and get a job? This is for you.
So many of our immigrant relatives planted their foreign roots in the US with lives like these; the book is a wake-up call that makes the reader contemplate just how they got to their current situation, gives hope to those beaten down by life, and will hopefully make you consider other people’s experiences before judging them as worthless.
“Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”-Mary Rommely
Seriously, all the feels.
UGH – FINE. I’ll add it to the list.
Just a few of the books I’m trying to read currently