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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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Alexa (AlexaNC) This month's fiction selection is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Who's read this already - and did you read it as an adult or as a child?

Nicole I read this for the first time a few years ago, as an adult. I absolutely loved it and I'm hoping I'll be able to reread it this month.

Alexa (AlexaNC) I think I read it when I was about 12 years old - it meant a lot to me at the time - yet I've heard so much criticism of it since then.... A little nervous if I want to risk altering one of my cherished childhood memories!

Nicole What kind of criticism have you heard? I can't remember anything that anyone would dislike since I thought it was such a sweet and inspiring story. Everyone else I've heard talk about it also loved it, but maybe I need to reread it...

Alexa (AlexaNC) A lot of breastfeeding advocates have described her depiction of nursing a toddler as rather troublesome - I can't really remember that part at all though.

Nicole Oh I don't remember that either.

message 7: by El (new) - rated it 3 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
I never read this book as a younger reader, and I think I should have since it didn't work for me that well as a 30-something. I can understand why so many people love it, but it didn't work for me. I found it dragged throughout.

Interesting, Alexa, I just read the book a few years ago and I also don't remember that part. It must have been a really quick scene that didn't leave much of an impression on most readers. I'd be interested in some discussion of that if you do ever come across that criticism again. (Like a discussion somewhere or even an article or whatever.)

Alexa (AlexaNC) OK, if you're sure you want it! :) This is one article:
“Literary Milk: Breastfeeding Across Race, Class, and
Species in Contemporary U.S. Fiction”

"Depression-era literature clearly presents U.S. culture’s ambivalent views of breastfeeding: either glorifying the intimacy and nurturance between a Madonna-like mother and child, or vilifying the infant’s prolonged dependence on the mother’s breast, and fearing the mother’s erotic attachment and engulfment of the child. An example of the latter can be found in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), a coming-of-age novel describing the European immigrant experience in New York City in the first decades of the twentieth century. Like other literary texts describing the working classes, Smith’s popular novel compares the proliferating Irish immigrant community to the trees that flourish in poor tenement districts, growing out of sidewalks and alleys, boarded-up lots and trash heaps. Immigrants and trees are vital forces of nature — but evidently prolonged breastfeeding is not. In a scene that many U.S. youth readers remember well into adulthood, six-year-old Gussie is finally weaned when his mother takes a can of stove blackening and “blacken[s] her left breast with stove polish” then uses lipstick to draw “a wide ugly mouth with frightening teeth in the vicinity of the nipple”(195). Gussie’s mother had tried to wean him at nine months of age, but he refused, and became a “tough little hellion” who refused all food but breastmilk until the age of two, and by age six must stand up to nurse, looking “not unlike a man with his foot on a bar rail, smoking a fat pale cigar”(195). When the neighbors’ gossip reaches such a point that the husband refuses to sleep with Gussie’s mother because she “breeds monsters,” the mother concludes that her son must be shocked in order to give up breastfeeding. This short scene addressing Gussie’s prolonged breastfeeding and traumatic weaning encapsulates the public censure, the hetero-male’s sexual fears, and the grotesque images that are associated with breastfeeding — particularly breastfeeding beyond infancy."

Nicole Wow, I totally didn't remember this before, but now that you've quoted it, it seems vaguely familiar. Although, I can't really remember who these characters were. I can definitely see how people would think this was problematic though.

Alexa (AlexaNC) I think it's become sort of embedded in the American subconscious and has colored a lot of views of extended breastfeeding, with many no longer being able to connect their negative impressions with the original cause.

message 11: by El (new) - rated it 3 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
Wow, thanks, Alexa. I still don't remember that scene, lol. But the article is certainly interesting.

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Late to the party but I just got the book and hopefully going to start it this weekend. I've heard a lot about it and how it's a favorite. I really loved Anthropology of an American Girl and hoping this is another one I can love.

Alexa (AlexaNC) Any final thoughts on this one?

Taylor (seffietay) I finally got my copy. I've been a bit MIA lately, too much work! But I definitely want to read this one!

Taylor (seffietay) I've finally finished this!! What was the problem with the breastfeeding part? That the mother felt she needed to scare her child in order to stop him from breast feeding? I didn't read the whole essay (20 pages analyzing breastfeeding in literature?!) but the scene in the book was just one vignette of so many provided by Smith, I don't see how the whole book could possibly be written off based on a single paragraph.

Alexa (AlexaNC) Oh no, I didn't mean to write off the entire book! We have to take literature in its time, just like books of 1940 can be rife with racism and sexism - or even just a sentence here or there. It's historically interesting though, because this is exactly the era when the artificial baby milk industry was gearing up and vast numbers of American women stopped breastfeeding. Just one of those subtle signs of the times. (Yikes, I wouldn't read all 20 pages! I think I pulled out the relevant paragraph.) It's not so much what the mom did, but rather the depiction of the child as a monster, or as a man in a bar smoking a cigar. The subconscious imagery that sticks with us.

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