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Book: A Tree Grows In Brooklynb

July 5, 2011
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Sometimes the gaps in my reading history are stunning to me. First, To Kill A Mockingbird. Who gets through high school, and AP English at that, without reading Mockingbird? Thankfully I remedied that earlier this year, and of course LOVED the book.

I’d never even heard of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (or if I had, it didn’t sink in) until a few years ago. I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed it was set in Brooklyn? But who knew? Not me. But I was at the library a few weeks ago and saw this on the shelf and realized that it had been recommended to me a few times lately. So I got it.

LOVED IT.

Of course. These books are not classics for nothing.

Little Francie Nolan is growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Although her family is beyond poor, they are not alone in their situation, and they have something many families don’t: love. Not that that love doesn’t have its limits — it does. Especially when your charming, delightful well-meaning father is also an incurable alcoholic. How they get through the hard times (which is most of the time) and how Francie determines to get out of the poverty cycle, is pretty much what this book is about.

And how do you get out of the poverty cycle? The answer was the same then as it is today: education. Luckily, Francie loves to read, and is determined to make something of herself. She knows that she’ll find a way to go to college. (an aside: when I was growing up, of course I loved to read. I read books like I was addicted to them. I was, in a way. My dad, who has some kind of learning disability, taught me to read very early. He always told me that if I loved to read, I could do anything, learn anything. It was his #1 lesson to me. And, it’s true. Reading opens doors.)

What to say about the book beyond that? Lovely, straightforward writing. Likable characters. Francie’s mother was a pretty, steel-charactered janitress who could have had anyone, but fell in love with Francie’s father, the talented but feckless Johnny Nolan. After it became clear that the only two things Johnny were really good at were singing and drinking, her mother went to work to support her family, literally for pennies a day. The children collected junk, which was sold for more pennies. Often there was no food, and when there was, it was usually built around the mainstay of stale bread.

But was this book depressing? No way. Each character has a dream. Sometimes small, sometimes big. Sometimes these dreams were crushed beyond recognition. Sometimes they had to be picked up and reconfigured. But they always kept on, never giving in to the grinding poverty, the grim surroundings, the “betters” who looked upon them as dirty throwaway people.

Beyond the storyline, this was just a really fun and interesting book to read. I kept thinking it was set in the Depression, but it was set in the early 1900s, from around 1900 to 1917 or so. I had a good time looking up fashions from the era. Reading about Brooklyn culture at the turn of the century was also very interesting, as were the attitudes towards doctors, travel, etc.

Overall, the book was warm, charming, interesting, mildly heartbreaking but ultimately feel-good in the way really good books are, nevermind the subject matter. I finished the book wishing for more, sad that it was over. Now I want to see the movie.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011 9:44 am

    I think I might have mentioned before that I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird until just a few years back. My wife loved it and often talked about it being her favorite book, but I had these preconceptions about what it might be like. Finally I decided to get her a really nice copy of it for a birthday or anniversary present and I read it beforehand as part of the gift.

    Fell in love with it. Fabulous book. I’ve seen a stage play of it and watched the Gregory Peck film since then.

    I have *heard* of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but I’ve never read it. It sounds just like the sort of book I would enjoy, however.

    • July 5, 2011 10:19 am

      Carl, I think you would really enjoy it, esp. if you liked Mockingbird.

    • July 6, 2011 2:50 pm

      Oh NICE of you to read it so you both can share a discussion! THIS is a wonderful present.

      I have yet to read ATGiB. But it IS on the list.

      • July 6, 2011 3:31 pm

        It was really very good. Move it on up the list!

  2. D'Arcy permalink
    July 5, 2011 10:02 am

    This book was part of my ninth grade English class (I think. I know I read it for school at some point). I absolutely loved it.

    • July 5, 2011 10:19 am

      Somehow my whole reading-at-school thing seems to be sadly deficient. Luckily I can make up time now.

  3. theveryhungrybookworm permalink
    July 6, 2011 5:16 am

    I read this as a book choice when I was a senior in high school. I finished it in a day. My teacher was astounded and then gave me another book to read. It is one of those books that deserves to be a classic and deserves to be read more.

    • July 6, 2011 3:32 pm

      I completely agree! I would have gobbled it up in high school too, and read it quickly as an adult.

  4. trapunto permalink
    July 6, 2011 12:21 pm

    Thank you for the review! You are the second insightful person I know of to enjoy this recently (other was my grandma). I guess that means I really must read it! It should be interesting to get a look at poverty in that period. I read a lot of books set around the 19-teens, but they are always about the upper crust.

    • July 6, 2011 3:33 pm

      You should — it was really, really good. Not depressing at all, although certainly eye-opening. I loved it.

  5. July 6, 2011 11:07 pm

    This was my absolutely favorite book from when I was 12ish – I read it over and over. And I read it again a few years ago and it meant just as much to me. One thing I loved was that Mary Frances Katherine Nolan wasn’t particularly nice or sweet – she could be prickly, impatient, judgmental and not particularly fun or funny. And oh the flowers on the desk – that just killed me!

    • July 7, 2011 9:45 pm

      I know!! That part got me too. I really loved it. I remember you saying this was your favorite book at one point — so it’s thanks to you that I read it!

  6. July 7, 2011 3:58 am

    I never read this one. I know, shame on me. But, I will go to the library and check it out today because I’m in a reading slump. Thanks for the recommendation.

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