A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Somewhat ironically, this is my first “real-time” (rather than “from the archives”) book review on Lost in a Book. By real-time, I mean that I finished reading the book now, in July of 2010, and am writing and sharing my thoughts on it for the first time ever.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty SmithWhy is this (somewhat) ironic? Because the first book I’m writing about in 2010 has been around since 1943. The book in question is Betty Smith’s much-lauded, semi-autobiographical bildungsroman A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

And it’s not just by way of a catchy intro that I point this out. It’s also extremely relevant to one of my major observations about this fantastic book, which has more than earned its place as an American classic: it is probably the most “timeless” book I have ever read.

Of course, there are significant elements of the story that are very time-and-place specific. It’s not simply set but also very much about living in a very distinctive neighbourhood (Brooklyn, New York) during a time of rapid change and major historical developments (roughly 1900-1920). Yet it reads very much like a contemporary novel. Part of this the style, tone and use of language. But perhaps more remarkable are the progressive sensibilities of both the protagonist and, one can extrapolate, the author. A surprisingly post-modern and empathetic perspective is reflected in both the depiction of and protagonist’s thoughts, on subjects as diverse as unwed teenage mothers, her father’s alcoholism, poverty and the attitude of the wealthier and more educated classes towards the poor, the working classes, and immigrants.

Smith is, of course, reflecting on the early 1900s. From the early 1940s. Was this type of thoughtfulness and enlightenment de rigeur in 1940? Perhaps to some degree, but so many of her conclusions and observations feel ahead of her time. Consider, for example, Frank McCourt’s experiences as documented in Angela’s Ashes. McCourt was born in 1930, and according to his own text they experienced very little understanding or empathy with regards to either his father’s alcoholism or his family’s poverty while growing up in the 1930s and 40s. In the case of Betty Smith, we are talking about a woman who was born in 1896, almost 34 years before McCourt (or, as a personal comparison, 23 years before my 91-year-old grandmother was born).

Further to the sensitive handling of social issues long before such sensitivity was common, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also refreshingly honest about life in general. Perhaps I think this was more rare than it actually was by this point in literary history… but it was almost definitely a deliberate and, indeed, most like a passionate choice on the part of the author, to write with frankness, empathy and dignity about everything from love and sex to poverty and addiction. It seems likely that Smith’s dedication to writing honestly about her own reality was cemented some time around the age of fourteen and a half, which is the age of her protagonist, Francie Nolan, when she has the following exchange with her English teacher:

“What’s happened to your writing, Francie?” asked Miss Gardner.

“I don’t know.”

“You were one of my best pupils. You wrote so prettily. I enjoyed your compositions. But these last ones…” she flicked at them contemptuously.

“I looked up the spelling and took pains with my penmanship and…”

“I’m referring to your subject matter.”

“You said we should choose our own subjects.”

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth!”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Gardner. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climactically.

It would seem that Francie (and most likely Smith herself) learned a very important lesson from a primary school English instructor — though clearly not the lesson intended. I’m very glad that young Lizzie Wehner understood what her “Miss Gardner” apparently did not. In recent decades, the wisdom that writers should “writing what [they] know” is so pervasive as to be idiomatic. But Betty Smith grew up before this concept was widely embraced. It was her faith in the importance and even beauty of actual truth that allowed and perhaps even inspired her to write one of the most enduring and classic works of American fiction.

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