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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (original 1943; edition 2013)

by Betty Smith (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
14,237397310 (4.32)1 / 896
The story of the Nolan family, including daughter Francie, and life in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century.
Member:janinesherman
Title:A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Authors:Betty Smith (Author)
Info:HarpPerenM (2013), 493 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:
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Work Information

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

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(see all 22 recommendations)

1940s (11)
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» See also 896 mentions

English (381)  Spanish (5)  Italian (3)  Catalan (2)  French (1)  Chinese, traditional (1)  Danish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (395)
Showing 1-5 of 381 (next | show all)
So many reviews were already written about this book. So I only thank want to thank a very good friend for recommending and lending me this gem. I had very special hours reading it. I laughed and cried with the characters and enjoyed reading about their lives in a country and a time far away from my own, but nevertheless finding similarities between my life and my feelings and theirs. ( )
  Ellemir | Nov 9, 2021 |
I really enjoyed reading this book. I liked the time period and realized that things really have not changed all that much over time. We still have poverty, hunger, loss of jobs, war, families losing loved ones, etc. I could relate to Francie somewhat. I kept asking myself when was this written? 1943. Amazing. ( )
  srlib12 | Oct 16, 2021 |
Warm and inviting, yet tempered with an awareness of daily hardship – a sort of proto-counterpart to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird – Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is part of a fine tradition in American letters. Told in simple yet often beautiful language, and with a keen eye for the cadences, textures and minutiae of life among good ol' American folks, Smith's famous novel becomes statuesque merely by telling, with grace and a homespun wisdom, the story of a poor working family as they try to get by in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century.

At first, it seems like the book won't ever rouse itself; whereas Harper Lee would later steel her own endearing "when I was a girl" story with the plotline of Tom Robinson's trial, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has no similar plotline to keep the reader on the right track. Particularly in the first half of the book, it can be difficult to identify why we should read the story; we do read it, for Betty Smith has great powers of observation, but a page or more on a trip to the local store to buy pickles can seem a bit redundant. It can be hard to fix upon any deeper literary merit, even after the titular metaphor is elaborated on by one character thus:

"'Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up out there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way…

If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful… But because there are so many, you just can't see how beautiful it really is. Look at those children.' She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. 'You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.'"
(pg. 95)

The subsequent progress of the story matches this metaphor, as we follow Francie Nolan from her young girlhood through to her late teens, and watch her develop into an intelligent, capable woman. Living in poverty, like that tree growing out of sour earth, she too transcends the harshness of her surroundings. As the story progresses, Smith's aptitude for slow-burning characterisation starts to pay dividends: even absent a plot, we enjoy looking in on the lives of Francie and her family. By the time we're finished, after nearly 500 pages, we don't want them to leave.

Reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has always been a minor ambition of mine, ever since I saw Perconte reading the book in the TV mini-series Band of Brothers nearly twenty years ago. I always thought it strange that American GIs would read such a book, and assumed that it was due to a lack of options. You take what you can get on a battlefront. However, having now read it myself, I can see why those homesick citizen soldiers turned to Betty Smith (the book, published in 1943, was hugely popular in its pocket-sized Armed Services Edition). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a warmth, a sense of place, a commitment to drawing characters with a sincere, uncynical decency, that would have been a home-brewed tonic to the brutality those soldiers would have been experiencing daily. This potency has only increased as old New York (and Western communal living in general) recedes into the mists of time. To a reader in the present day, scenes like the one on page 205, when Papa and the children lug a fresh pine Christmas tree up to the fourth floor of their tenement block – Papa singing carols all the while – can seem like reading of a lost world.

However, the warmth of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is never a cheaply sentimental warmth. Even despite its ending, which was a bit too Dickensian-fairytale for my liking, the moments in Smith's novel where our hearts ache at the tenderness are hard-won. There is poverty, and if it's not quite the stark, debilitating poverty of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published just a few years earlier, it's still very real. The stillbirths. The alcoholism. The scrubwoman working on her hands and knees while heavily pregnant. The threat of paedophilia which terrorises the mothers of the neighbourhood – a surprise inclusion, as the narrative we have nowadays is that this is a modern phenomenon driven by our over-sexualised culture. When young Francie rests with her arms on the window sill and looks up and sees "the stars high above the tenement roofs" (pg. 54), it reminds us how much innocence there is in the story, and yet at the same time the children are exposed to so much tragedy and poverty. It set me on a train of thought that perhaps much of our modern cynicism is due to our all-but-complete freedom from want, rather than any greater exposure we have to cultural violence and nihilism.

The book, despite lacking an identifiable plotline, accomplishes the commendable feat of standing tall, like a smooth piece of architecture that does not show the joins. A thread of humanity emerges and is reinforced, and begins to make even the concept of a plotline seem like an inferior choice. When the astute young Francie reflects on an incident with her Aunt Sissy, and puts "that nugget of knowledge away with all the others that she was continually collecting" (pg. 317), she shows us the open strategy of the writer. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is more than just a collection of childhood memories, sown together with great competency. When Papa sends flowers to Francie on her graduation (pg. 351), it's a well-earned moment of storytelling. When a group of Brooklynite workers "each chipped in a few pennies a day to hire a man to read to them while they worked. And the man read fine literature" (pg. 171), we feel the dignity of it. Thankfully, we don't need to have someone read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to us. We can read it ourselves, and it's often so damned good in its goodness that there's no reason not to.

"'People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,' thought Francie, 'something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place for 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.'" (pg. 457) ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Oct 3, 2021 |
A tribute to the human spirit and will to survive. I liked the movie more, possibly because it contains fantastic performances from my favorite people. And, in spite of what my library thinks, not a teen book. ( )
  OutOfTheBestBooks | Sep 24, 2021 |
I think I read this for the first time when I was 10 or 11, but since moving to New York it's taken on a whole new life for me ( )
  madelinemar | Aug 16, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 381 (next | show all)

» Add other authors (29 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Smith, Bettyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Burton, KateNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillard, Anniesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fields, AnnaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hall, BarnabyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kazin, AlfredAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pagani, DanielaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pietribiasi, AntonellaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quindlen, AnnaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stasolla, MarioIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly. . .survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
Dedication
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Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.
Quotations
Francie came away from her first chemistry lecture in a glow. In one hour she had found out that everything was made up of atoms which were in continual motion. She grasped the idea that nothing was ever lost or destroyed. Even if something was burned up or left to rot away, it did not disappear from the face of the earth; it changed into something else—gases, liquids, and powders. Everything, decided Francie after that first lecture, was vibrant with life and there was no death in chemistry. She was puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion.
Dear God, 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.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

The story of the Nolan family, including daughter Francie, and life in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century.

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Book description
Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.
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