Houselions's Reviews > A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty  Smith
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Feb 24, 12

bookshelves: favorites
Recommended for: Everyone
Read in February, 2012, read count: countless

How can I explain how much I love this book?


I reread this book about once a year or so, ever since I first found it in a neighborhood bookstore as a kid. Several copies of it have passed through my hands over the years. All I have to do is flip it open or think of some passage that I want to look up, and before I know it I'm reading it again, and it's so compelling that I usually burn through it in a few days. To this date, it is the only book that I've read on my cellphone at my desk while I'm supposed to be working, and I've done that twice now, because I can't even put it aside for a whole workday.

The book is mainly about growing up, but it's really about life: love, sacrifice, poverty, joy, sorrow, learning, working, making choices and living with the consequences.

It is timeless. My grandmother read it as a young woman in the 40's, and my mother read it as a young girl in the 60's. I first read it as a schoolkid in the early 90's, and it's not hard to imagine my own children reading it someday. I have a thing for books that preserve a world that no longer exists. When this book was published in 1943, the world described in it was already gone. You really get a sense for how profoundly the world changed in the years covered in the book (1901 to 1917), but between these years and the the year the book came out even more profound changes had taken place. Still, the sense of time and place in the novel is so rich that it's easy even 100 years later to find yourself drawn deeply into its world.


For example, this passage:


"There was always the music. There were songs and dancing on the Brooklyn streets in those long ago summers and the days should have been joyous. But there was something sad about those summers, something sad about the children, thin in body but with the baby curves still lingering in their faces, singing in sad monotony as they went through the figures of a ring game. It was sad the way they were still babies of four and five years of age, but so precocious about taking care of themselves.

...

Even the minstrels who came into the backyards and sang

"If I had my way, You would never grow old"

were sad, too. They were bums and they were hungry and they didn't have talent for song-making. All they had in the world was the nerve to stand in a backyard with cap in hand and sing loudly. The sad thing was in the knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all people in Brooklyn seem lost when the day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn't give you warmth when it shines on you."


This book has some of the most powerful descriptions of the emotional turmoil of growing up that I've ever read. The whole concept of seeing something you once thought beautiful and magical as tired and gaudy and yet knowing that these things haven't changed at all, and only you have, and the pain that accompanies this realization is something with which everyone who tended toward the sensitive and romantic as a child can identify. The descriptions of emotional states are so simple, yet so elegant: "...in the dark, she waited for the waves of hurt to stop breaking over her." "For no reason at all, she thought of an accordian pulled out full for a rich note. Then she had an idea that the accordian was closing...closing...closing..." "The tears stood in her eyes."


I feel like there's so much more I could say about this book, but other reviewers have said it better than I can, so I will just say read it, read it, read it!
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