review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
guest post by Thomas Mavor
How is it that there is always that one book (or ten or a hundred) that makes you think, “How come I have not read this yet?” I stumble across this “one book” all the time. Last year, I finally settled down with Catch 22. Several years ago, I read Appointment in Samarra. A few weeks ago, I finally opened Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
As a high school educator, I am surrounded by teachers who are readers and who have an investment in finding the best reads for their students. The teacher whose classroom is next to my office stops to talk to me everyday about what she is reading or what her students are reading (or not reading, as the case may be!). She had recently listened to an audiobook of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and raved about its charm and nostalgia. A week later she placed a paperback copy on my desk. Perhaps it was the female first person narrator or the Brooklyn setting that had made me never put it to the front of the queue. I tend to lean to male protagonists in Southern settings–you know, relatable to my own personal life.
Once I entered into the world of Brooklyn in the opening decades of the 1900s, I became charmed as my colleague had been. Francie Nolan, the main character, is a child of poverty but one of imagination and grit. She is a reader, of course, and an observer. She watches her peers, her teachers, her brother, her aunts, her parents–especially her wonderfully joyous but alcoholic father– for what it means to be a person who embraces life, its joys and its struggles.
The novel does not have a strong central conflict. It is truly a coming of age novel that describes the various learning moments of her youthful and adolescent life. Some events are heartbreaking; some are poignant; many are endearing. Once I realized there was not a central conflict, I enjoyed the leisurely read, glimpsing, as it was, the emotional and intellectual awakening of Francie. The novel’s final scene is memorable in that Francie has grown enough to recognize the process of her own maturation. And, of course, as any great novel does, it made me reflect on my own emergence into adulthood. Instead of reading a book on a fire escape underneath a shady tree overlooking a dirty Brooklyn backyard, I sat on a screened porch with a book overlooking a shaded yard in a Mississippi coastal town.
— Thomas Mavor