“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
(First publication: 1943 / This Edition: Harper Collins Olive Edition 2014)
Taken with my scratched-up Bialetti and petunias Mom found at our building
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.
Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat.
Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin.
Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost. (p.531)
A friend from high school recommended this book to me. I haven’t seen him for maybe 7-8 years now, but he suggested it to me on Facebook. I went to buy it the next day. I didn’t really know what to expect—but I’ve seen good reviews about it on social media many times.
I just finished it about an hour ago, and I feel so… full and content. The writing was just so smooth and beautiful, and I was so absorbed. It is quite a long book (619 pages) but I read it in three nights. I actually have other things to be busy with, but my mind just kept flitting back to this book and I just wanted to stop everything to get back to it. It’s that amazing.
I wouldn’t say the story is “exciting” or “thrilling”—nothing too crazy happens. I guess it’s similar to W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” in a sense, where you just kind of follow the main character’s thoughts, decisions, and actions through daily life. (“Of Human Bondage” is one of my favorite books, by the way; my review here) This one centers on a girl, Francie, from a “poor” family in Brooklyn at the turn of the century, in the early 1900’s. The family goes through many struggles: poverty, deaths, rapist on the loose, low-paying jobs, and etc. The story follows Francie from when she was very little to when she was able to get into college. It’s a coming-of-age story.
I love the book because in so many ways, I felt like I could relate to many of Francie’s feelings and frustrations—expectations, societal frustrations, determination, and etc.
Actually, before I get into all that, I felt this immediate connection with the book within the first chapter. Not too relevant, but I just want to tell this story. 🙂 On my birthday last month, I had a day out with my mom, my aunt, and my grandma. While in the car, my grandma was telling me about how when my aunt and my mom were very young, she was selling/hosting this “game” in the market. I’m sure that “game” was probably more popular back in the day, and I even played some at fairs and all that when I was younger. I didn’t really understand what my grandma was talking about at first, so the three of them were explaining it to me with so much liveliness and laughter. My grandma would just have a board with a bunch of papers/tabs with a number written on the back of each. Kids would come and pay a few coins to pick a tab, and they get whatever prize that has the same number. They would win candies, pencils, dolls, and etc. Of course my grandma had her “tricks” to make the game harder for kids to win the bigger prizes. She got all defensive as she was telling that part, but it was just so cute and funny the way the three were all reminiscing about that period they shared. Anyway, in the first chapter, it just mentions about how Francie often goes see “Cheap Charlie” who has that game, and how no one wins anything “big” but all the kids come hopeful every time. My grandma also talked about how she kept hoping no one would come and buy all the tabs—because then she’d have to give all the prizes away in order not to be “found out”… and this is exactly what Francie does to Cheap Charlie at the end of the book. (haha) Just made me think about my grandma. 🙂
Anyway, so as I said, I felt like I could relate to Francie in many ways, for example: her need to be around people, but also her need for solitude; her love for her family though sometimes she gets frustrated; and her struggle to better herself in terms of knowledge. Since it’s a coming-of-age story, I guess many parts of the story made me reminisce about my coming-of-age story and how both Francie and I managed to “grow up” and get pass all those things—even though I’m living a century later.
I especially love Francie’s passion for books. It is something I can highly relate to—obviously (haha). Read this passage Francie says in the book—if you’re a bibliophile, then you can probably relate to this. 😉 I think because I’m an only child and value solitude, books have always been a “necessity” to me. Even though I am a social person, I always consider my “quiet alone time” reading important. I mean…I feel like this every time I go to a bookstore or look for books online ( 😛 haha) :
“Francie thought that all books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world.” (p.25)
Anyway, the story also touches on other people’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you read about what her mother, her father, or even the bar owner are thinking. It made me see things from other people’s perspectives—not just the one who’s “coming-of-age”, but the people around her; their explanations and their decisions. For example, when Francie experienced her first heartbreak, you read her mother’s thoughts:
“It’s come at last, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. When there wasn’t enough food in the house you pretended that you weren’t hungry so they could have more. In the cold of a winter’s night you got up and put your blanket on their bed so they wouldn’t be cold. You’d kill anyone who tried to harm them—I tried my best to kill that man in the hallway [the rapist]. Then one sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spare them.” (p.582)
It made me think about my mother and what she had to deal with when I was going through all that (haha). Like Francie, I also have two aunts (only one that I see often) and I am close to my grandmother. Reading about what all her close relatives do and what their beliefs are, it makes me reflect on my relatives. In many ways, their teachings and values are similar—which, again, I find surprising, since we’re a century apart. If my mom, my aunt, or my grandma read this book, they’d probably enjoy it too, because it’ll probably make them feel like they can relate to Francie as well.
I would highly recommend this read. It’s a beautiful and sweet read, and I hope that one day, I’ll get to give this book to my daughter and granddaughter or whoever. It’s uplifting. The family’s a close and loving one—everyone has the best intentions for one another and strive to be better. I think it’s probably more enjoyable for women than men—though my friend that recommended it is a man; it just mostly centers on a girl and she goes through more “feminine” things. Also, it’s a long book, but I found it easy to read—I found myself surprised whenever I realized that I had just finished 200+ pages and it felt like time hasn’t passed at all. The language is much smoother and simpler than, say, “Anna Karenina” or even “East of Eden”. There are many sad parts, but also funny parts. I literally giggled out loud here and there (especially the boating scene).
This is definitely one of my favorite books and I’m looking forward to reading more by Betty Smith. 🙂
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
People always thing that happiness is a faraway thing, something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains—a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone—just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness. (p.575-576)
[…] the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believes. She must start out by believing in 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. (p.105)
There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory. (p.207)
It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable. (p.222)
If there’s one thing certain, it’s that we all have to get old someday. So get used to the idea as quickly as you can. (p.52)
He wondered why it hadn’t turned out the way it said in songs. (p.288)
If you love someone, you’d rather suffer the pain alone to spare them. (p.424)
Well, a person can cry only for so long. Then he has to do something else with his time. (p.585)