Lizzie's Reviews > A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty  Smith
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's review
Mar 02, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, nyc, young-adult, used-book, heard-of-it, own
Read from June 01 to July 05, 2011

Speaking of the right text for the moment. You got it, Brooklyn.

I recently moved to Brooklyn (again), and I figured reading this was a good way to welcome myself. I'm glad I did that. I never read it as a child, though I couldn't say why.

And I don't know what happened, but I found myself feeling so sad whenever I started reading that I stopped and took a break for a while, which I have never done ever before with a book. I read other serious books all the time. So it was strange.

Essentially the problem went away the older Francie got, therefore the better bolstered she grew to the world and her sharp observations of it. She is rather wonderfully sentimental her whole life, but as a really little kid her highs and lows are just crushing. When no one wants to play with her; when she sees the free piano in their house AND HUGS IT and can't HUG IT ENOUGH; when she has to take the pretty doll, she just can't stand it, she can't stand it. I about died.

It's not even a very sad book, is the thing. It's an impeccably classic coming-of-age book, with everything that goes inside one, but it isn't deeply tragic. Francie's life is difficult (and hungry), and she absorbs a lot of grief, but she gets a lot of triumphs by overcoming it. She learns to be a really, really good person, in a world that's usually too cold for her. And half the novel's purpose seems to be the detailing of its setting (1910's Williamsburg), and filling it with shops and people and realness, not just the experiences of one girl. My expectation was always that this book is an idyllic time capsule about the good old days, but it's actually about being poor, and being surrounded by realistically iffy people.

Interestingly, for a book about a girl, almost all the people in it are adults. I really loved that. Instead of keeping her feelings about Francie's growing up to herself, the author put them all in a wide range of grown-ups who are watching her for different reasons. We learn so much about her family history, her aunts' lives, her parents' relationship. There's a lot of frankness about sex and death and birth. Altogether the scope goes far beyond the small distractions of childhood, unlike a lot of books of this kind. Her mother Katie is the second strongest character here, and is so complex she's sometimes difficult to love. ("She exchanged her tenderness for capability.") My very favorite was Aunt Sissy, and her naive way of standing up for things. I think her lucky, cunning intimidation of Francie's mean teacher was my favorite.

Francie's pursuits when she gets older are so lovely. She becomes interested in playwriting, which was almost too much for me, it's so sweet. There's a little conflict while she's learning about writing stories that are darker and truer than adults generally encourage little girls to write. At one point she finds she's writing fantasy to mask these themes, while still writing about hunger, and she gives up and feels she's failed. But I actually really like what she did, and I wished the lesson was that she could have victory this way.

When she's older, she gets in a complicated situation being stuck between work and high school, and throws herself into full-time jobs. These make her grow up, but instead of giving up her other ambitions she basically hacks her way into college, and any other kind of classes she can find and pay for. And it's awesome. I wished this part of the book were even longer, because it brought out so many interesting experiences and changes for her. Instead it kind of breaks down into chapters of paragraph-long vignettes for a while, and I'm not sure why. At some point the book shows that it kind of lacks unity, and that's a little disappointing. It's so close to having it all.

I also totally hated Lee right from the start. But I wasn't sure if I was supposed to. I was happy that the ending didn't involve a direct tie to a boy.

Francie's emotional relationship with Brooklyn through the book is completely great. There's a lot of exalting its gruff openness and crumbly nature. I like when she defends New Yorkese linguistically to her brother ("'Here in Brooklyn stood is like the past tense of stay'") because I feel totally the same way. There's a lot of sweet comments about the borough's universality (which is more true than ever, where I live). I love when her dad takes her up to have a view of the neighborhood and city and she tells him, "'It's pretty the same way pictures of in-the-country are pretty.'" Perfect.


Side note that this edition is kind of disappointing. The afterword is full of inaccuracies quite irritating to someone just having finished the book, and the illustrations are weird and... uh, bad. With the exception of the iconic little fire escape design on all the chapter numbers. I like that. But that dude cannot draw people, I'm sorry.

I picked up this copy at Half Price Books in Marion, IA for $2 last year. Good place.

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Reading Progress

06/06/2011 page 58
14.0% "Weird for me: I need to take a break to lighten myself up and read something funny. I like Francie so much, I'm finding I don't even want to bring this to bed because I'm afraid it's gonna make me really sad soon."
06/21/2011 page 96
23.0% "And we're back. And indeed Francie immediately has made me cry. So that's where we are."
06/22/2011 page 113
27.0% "SERIOUSLY, FRANCIE, I CAN'T TAKE THIS. (She's hugging the piano. HUGGING THE PIANO! I'm going to cry for a year.)"
07/05/2011 page 414
100.0% "Not crazy about this Afterword. But hey, it's the end. Most lovely."

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Chelsea To re-read, or read for the first time?

Lizzie Another "to read for the first time how haven't I read this?"!

Chelsea Oh, MAN! For one, you're right, how have you not read it. But now I am SO JEALOUS as I would love to read this for the first time. Is that lame? It might be.

Lizzie Ok this is so great, now I'm freaking excited and can't wait to go to the library.

Ellen Huck This is on my top ten favorites! I kept trying to get my daughter to read it for years. She took it back with her to Brooklyn, and thanked me for badgering her to read it all those years. It is a book that stays with you...emotions and visualizations of scenes. Actually the copy she took with her was a new copy that I bought for myself to reread it. My original copy was my mother's...mmmm,three generations of women reading. Sweet!

Ellen Huck It is such an emotional book. Emotional for the reader. Francie and her family show the strength of character that sometimes, I wonder, if we have lost. Reading your comments, I want to reread it. Chelsea, I loved your comment about wishing you could read it again for the first time. Some books are like that. That is why it is on my top ten. I even bought an apron from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens with the TREE THAT GROWS IN BROOKLYN on it. My own homage to the book back here in WI.

Lizzie I love the story about the Botanical Gardens! I should check out the gift shop. :)

This edition has a really, really nice fire escape design with the tree on the cover, and I'm thinking about turning it into a picture I can hang up.

It's interesting that this is such a perfect classic, but I (and some other bookish ladies I've talked to) just somehow completely missed it when we were young.

Ellen Huck It was popular in the 40's and 50's. Perhaps in the 60's and 70's it seemed "old". I first read my mother's copy...which now that I think of it was probably a first edition. DAMN! Where is it now? I think it is a hidden gem for many. Film buffs are often introduced to through the movie. Actually that might have been where I first was introduced to it, and my mother told me it was also a book. Long ago...don't totally remember. I don't ever recall people learning about it in school, so it is definitely a word of mouth book today.

I like how you mentioned Francie's relationship to Brooklyn. For me that was almost magical, not having at that time any connection whatsoever. My daughter has lived there for sometime and loves it, found that to be another layer of deliciousness of the novel.

Liz, where are you living in Brooklyn now?

Lizzie I remember the book coming up all the time when I'd read a lot of books I found by browsing at the public library, around 4th-6th grade. It was always right there with the other things I liked to read, but I never took it.

I actually have no idea what neighborhood I've moved to. Every map seems a little different! (Somewhere around the convergence of Boro Park, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights.) It's rather deep in the borough, and lovely and quiet and homey. It's a whole new place to me.

Also, today I got a shiny 2011 penny at the drug store and my brain said, "Don't spend it! You have to keep it! Like Francie does when she gets her first 1916 penny!"

message 10: by Becky (last edited Apr 27, 2013 10:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Becky I love this book. Is this your copy? would you be willing to sell it (it's beautiful)? pm me if you are :) or at least tell me what edition it is so I can get one for myself.

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