Apr 9, 2021 | LIFE | By Sada Rice | Illustration by Xixi Qin
In many ways, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith seems like many coming-of-age stories. It is filled with firsts and new beginnings: the first day of school, moving into a new home, becoming a big sister, getting a job, feeling drunk for the first time, having a first crush, the first kiss, and of course, the first heartbreak.
However, the beauty of this novel doesn’t come from what happens; it simply can’t be explained with a plot summary. Rather, it’s something in the raw truth of the words, in the way the story is told. Even when the details are seemingly about nothing, they’re about everything. Smith tells this story so honestly that although it’s a work of fiction, it’s obvious that her own personal story is woven throughout.
The novel begins in the summer of 1912 and follows young Francie Nolan, who grows up poor in Brooklyn. Her father is an alcoholic who is in and out of the family’s life, but Francie loves him regardless. Her mother is hardworking and logical, so much so that she struggles to show any warmth towards Francie.
Francie is a lonely child, but she finds comfort in books. Her plan is to read all the books in the world, a quest that she begins at the public library. Each day she reads one book, going in alphabetical order without even skipping the dry ones, except on Saturdays when she treats herself by reading a book out of order.
The writing is slow-paced, weaving the story through the details of this young girl’s everyday life. It is full of observations that only a child would have the time to make, allowing the reader to see all the things she notices and absorbs. We get to know her neighborhood and the individuals that inhabit it.
Because of the book’s length, each character has the time to develop and to feel alive. There are no “good” or “bad” characters, just individuals doing their best with what they have so that they feel like real human beings. Coming from a young girl, the writing is mostly observations with very little judgement, allowing the reader to make sense of this fictional world themselves.
The changes in Francie’s character are gradual and subtle, but over the course of the novel, there certainly is a coming-of-age. She is no longer disillusioned by Carney, the man who gives children pennies in exchange for the junk they collect (and maybe an extra penny for girls who don’t make a fuss if he pinches them). She also now sees through Cheap Charlie’s trick, letting the kids pick a prize for a penny when there is no chance to win the roller skates on display.
This is a novel that can be read and appreciated at any stage of life. It is one I will be holding onto so I can experience it again — an experience that I know will change with time. From a young girl growing up, to the dynamics of being a mother, to the wisdom shared as a grandmother, there is certainly no lack of perspectives. All are trying their best to figure out how to navigate this life and the process never ends.
I already miss Francie Nolan and her family. The story somehow makes me reminisce on something I never even experienced myself. The perfection of this novel is in its ability to evoke strong emotions without demanding them from you with a dramatic storyline or sorrowful language. Instead, the chapters are artfully arranged to create meaning, even when you can’t explain the meaning in words. It is the juxtaposition of the trivial and the important, the way things happen in real life. It is a tender book, but also one of profound strength.