Alex's Reviews > A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty  Smith
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Jan 02, 15

really liked it
bookshelves: brooklyn, new-york-literary-biography, 2014, rth-lifetime
Recommended for: wannabe hipsters paying a million dollars to renovate Frances' railroad apartment
Read from March 01 to 06, 2014

"Tell the truth. Write the story."

Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels autobiographical, and in fact it is. Betty Smith grew up in Williamsburg with an alcoholic father and a mother who favored her son. She worked at an artificial flower factory and as a press clipper. Some elements of the story are made up: most obviously, of course, Smith's omniscient narrator frequently dips into other characters' heads, and those bits - frequently, as with the sketch of the lonely saloon owner Mr. McGarrity, among the wisest sections of the book - were surely invented. Most oddly, the from-nowhere incident of the predator, (view spoiler) both feels and probably was made up, or anyway transposed from neighborhood legend into Frances' story. But most of it is based on her own life.

"Brooklyn's better."
"It hasn't got skyscrapers like New York, has it?"
"No. But there's a feeling about it - oh, I can't explain it. You've got to live in Brooklyn to know."

And very specifically based, too: Smith is Balzacian in her attention to detail. Her characters don't just buy an apple. They go to a specific, real corner, like Bogart and Moore in East Williamsburg, where they buy something else because an apple costs a dime and you can get a potato for free and here are the other things you can get for a dime. It's like an instruction manual on how to be poor in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. This precision is my favorite thing about the book.

"Brooklyn. It's a magic city and it isn't real."

Less successful is its sentimentality. It veers into corny territory with abandon. This is essentially ye old up-by-the-bootstraps story: it's probably not coincidental that Frances' father shares a name with a character from a Horatio Alger book.

Fine as a novel; brilliant as a portrait of a specific place in a specific time.
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Reading Progress

03/01/2014 marked as: currently-reading
03/03/2014
20.0% "I love how specific Betty Smith is. Her characters don't buy an apple; they go to a specific, real corner, like Bogart and Moore in Williamsburg, where they buy something else because an apple costs a dime and you can get a potato for free and here are the other things you can get for a dime. Balzacian specificity."
03/05/2014
57.0% "So far we've had negative stereotypical portrayals of: Jews, a Chinese guy, and gays. Black people tally: zero."
03/06/2014
90.0% "Johnny Nolan, the father, is also a character in Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick. Coincidence?"
03/07/2014 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Sera Awww, I love sentimentality, and I thought that this one really nailed it when I read it a few years ago. Sorry that it didn't capture your heart like it did mine.

I hope that my Bookish friends aren't becoming jaded. Or, maybe I'm just becoming softer....


Alex It was close, Sera, but there were just a few too many points where I thought it overdid it.

But everyone's got a book they're just soft about, right? There are totally books that are a little sentimental but I defend them to the death. This just doesn't happen to be mine.


Sera I hear you.


message 4: by Kaion (new)

Kaion Maybe it's the kind of thing you need to read when you're coming of age?

This has been on my vague "should read at some point" mental list for a long while. You mentioned negative stereotypical portrayals in your status updates, is it terribly distracting/comprise of a large portion of the book?


Alex I don't think it would hurt to be younger, but Sera just read it a few years ago. So maybe it's more that you need to read it when you're not a cynical bastard.

I've been pretty torn about the stereotypes, Kaion. Black people never did show up, not even one, not for a split second, which seems crazy. The Jewish stuff is fairly pervasive, but rarely in a truly mean-spirited way. More in a "This is how we talk here" way. And it seems to me that if I'm after the authentic experience of poor people, then this is part of it, right? I can't be all "I want to read all about the disenfranchised, except for the parts where they're unpleasant." So: poor Irish/German immigrants in East Williamsburg in the early 1900s had some fairly deeply entrenched ideas about Jews. Smith isn't trying to be nasty; she just repeats what she saw as a child.

tl;dr it didn't ruin the book for me.


Lisa I LOVED the throwing of the Christmas tree. Tore me up how that man hated this stupid world; he captured how I feel so often.


message 7: by Matthew (new)

Matthew A good review, although I like who you recommend it to as well.


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