A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

// Book Review //

“But this tree in the yard - this tree that men chopped down...this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up it's stump - this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it.” -Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a story of heartbreak intertwined with hope and sets the standard for the lofty title of “great American classic”. Francie Nolan has permanently seated herself at the favorites table in my bookish heart. Many would describe this book as a coming-of-age story that takes place in Brooklyn during the early 1900’s. This is an accurately simplistic statement that only scratches the surface.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contains layers upon layers upon layers that examines and lays bare the human condition and spirit. The story reminds me of the many rings on a tree trunk which represent the growth of the tree over the years. Betty Smith covers a multitude of themes over Francie’s seventeen years including: poverty, intolerance, family relationships, alcoholism, pride, gossip, womanhood, bullying, telling the truth, escapism, imagination, sisterhood, land ownership, democracy, pregnancy, hypocrisy, sexual assault, personal defense, social pressure, socioeconomic division, union support, family bonds, trust, misconception, ignorance, dignity, self-respect, faith, hard work, grief, remembrance and repentance. My favorite themes cover the importance of education and the role of writing to document, create and escape.

There were many poignant moments throughout the story. Two of my favorites include Francie’s gift of flowers from Johnny at her graduation and the incredible “story-within-a-story” where Francie’s teacher tells her to burn her writing because it is ugly and no one would want to read it. This is an alarming and unbelievable statement when we consider that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a semi-autobiographical novel reflecting the author's life experiences as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn. Could you imagine an English teacher telling Betty Smith that she should burn her manuscript of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because it is ugly and therefore no one will want to read it?! This book is ugly and beautiful wrapped in struggle, hard work and the will to survive which in turn makes me want to read it!

Betty Smith best summarizes both her life’s philosophy along with the underlying theme in this book when she wrote in a magazine article, “I came to a clear conclusion, and it is a universal one: To live, to struggle, to be in love with life - in love with all life holds, joyful or sorrowful - is fulfillment. The fullness of life is open to all of us.” Those are beautiful words to ponder and apply to each of our lives!

I also thought it was interesting that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was shipped for free to US military personnel serving in World War 2 and quickly became one of the most popular books released as an Armed Services Edition. The Wall Street Journal printed part of a letter written to Betty Smith by a Marine. The Marine wrote, “I can't explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine...A surge of confidence has swept through me, and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all." I agree.

I listened to the majority of this book on audio. When I picked up my paperback in the evening before bed, I found myself wanting to return to the audio with my headphones. This story is superbly narrated by Kate Burton. I thoroughly enjoyed her Brooklyn dialects along with the Irish, German and Jewish accents. She is talented beyond measure and I highly recommend her recording.

This book will stay with me for years to come!

There are so many quotes that I love from this book. I have included a handful below:

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” 

“Forgiveness is a gift of high value. Yet its cost is nothing.” 

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” 

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.” 

Author: Betty Smith

Narrator: Kate Burton

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Format: Paperback

ISBN: 978-00607362