Coming of Age series: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

In the third of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews Betty Smith’s 1943  novel ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’. 

“It is a good thing to learn the truth of one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too… Do not forget that suffering is good… It makes a person rich in character.”

The idea that suffering makes one “rich in character” is a common belief. We hear it all the time; the “character-building” qualities that disappointment, betrayal, loss, poverty, pain and injustice instill in a person. Is it all necessary? Can’t we skip the hard stuff and get to the good stuff? No, apparently. Especially, if your name happens to be Francie Nolan and you are the heroine of a Betty Smith book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Smith’s first novel, though the American playwright had enjoyed modest success up until the book’s publication in 1943. The book has now sold over one million copies worldwide, resides on the prescribed US school reading list and was chosen as one of the “Books of the Century” by the New York Public Library.

The novel focuses on the Nolan family, who are living in poverty in Brooklyn, New York during 1912-1918. They are first generation Americans with an Irish/Austrian German heritage. At the centre of the novel is young Francie Nolan, the eldest daughter of Katie and Johnny Nolan. The story is told from her perspective, begins when she is a pre-teen and follows her during those pivotal years.

Francie is the perfect heroine: strong-willed, intelligent, and wise beyond her years; brave, adventurous and confident, but also patient, gentle, loving and sensitive. She has many “flaws” that make it difficult for her to fit in. Often, these so-called “flaws” are beyond Francie’s control, such as her family’s poverty, her “loose” Aunt Sissy and her alcoholic father. The novel tracks Francie’s determination to rise above the opinions of others and to make her own way in the world.

The stand-out relationship of the novel is between Francie and her dad, Johnny. The bond they share is poignant and becomes the central love story in the novel. Johnny Nolan is a chronic alcoholic with limited prospects. He has no secure income, having little employment as a singing waiter. He has his faults (this is without question), however, no other man has loved his family as much as Johnny Nolan. Indeed, Johnny is well-loved and has the respect of his friends; he is musical and has a voice that stops people in their tracks – but he is deeply, relentlessly troubled.

However, these troubles aren’t eased by the novel’s conclusion, and I have great respect for a writer, like Smith, who avoids the temptation to reform characters. It is no easy feat to restrain from “fixing up” characters so that they seem prettier, but Smith never succumbs to do this with Johnny. She simply lets him be.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is beautifully written and perfectly executed. Smith’s style is undoubtedly the envy of many writers; never condescending, but clear, poised and compassionate. She emerges as an author who is not trying to impress, but whose goal instead is to tell an interesting story that will capture her readers’ hearts and minds.

In her own words: “I have no axe to grind…I just wanted to write.”

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