There is a passage in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where Francie Nolan, the book’s protagonist, is described as the sum of many parts. A genetic and experiential palimpsest, Francie:
was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely’s mysticism, her tale-telling….She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk.
There are books I love and books I fall in love with, books that catch me up in their language and envelop me in the world of their story, and books that do all that and also stay, books that lodge themselves inside me. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as its narrator describes Francie, a collage of experience and inheritance, and I am in love with it.
When I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I read about my grandparents, born in New York to Irish immigrants just a year after the book closes. I read about myself, a girl from a city who loved to look at trees from her apartment window and read as if her life depended on it. I read about the Williamsburg streets that I walk down today, then populated with pickle barrels and rag pickers. I read about women who have sexual lives, whose sexuality affects every aspect of their experience, whether they feel plain desire or mere curiosity, the fear of pregnancy or a longing for children, a weary awareness of unwanted attention or the terrifying reality of violence. I read about shame and class and loving people who hurt you as well as themselves.
It’s not a flashy book, though it is often beautiful, and it’s unafraid to tell you what it thinks. Betty Smith has no mercy to spare for the condescending doctor who talks about Francie like she isn’t there (“I know they’re poor but they could wash.”), or the patronizing teacher who informs her that her family’s story is sordid, unfit for consumption. But there is nothing romantic about the Nolan family’s poverty: it is grueling and it degrades. The grandchild of immigrants, Francie, 11 and then, ultimately, 17, feels a curious mixture of hatred and pride for the conditions she lives in. She tries so hard to escape them and when she finally does, she takes a last walk through the streets of her childhood.
The way it was now was the way she wanted to remember it.
No, she’d never come back to the old neighborhood.
Besides, in years to come, there would be no old neighborhood to come back to. After the war, the city was going to tear down the tenements and the ugly school where a woman principal used to whip little boys, and build a model housing project on the site; a place of living where sunlight and air were to be trapped, measured and weighed, and doled out so much per resident.
She has no illusions about the unloveliness of the soon-to-be-demolished school, of whipped children, but she also has no affection for the future project, with its precise stipends of air and light, that will be built in its place. This is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at its best—when it is ambivalent: Francie’s complicated relationship to the geography of her childhood, to a beloved father crippled by alcohol, to a mother who loves her brother best, to familial obligation, to her own body. Her grandmother reveals the value of these tugs of war when she explains why children should both believe in Santa Claus and also later discover he isn’t real: the glut of hope and then its loss “fattens the emotions and make them to stretch.” Both are necessary, belief and cynicism, and it will teach them to survive.
Everything happens. People are born and die, people get married and others don’t, people have kids, people take kids, abortions are offered, periods arrive, school is taken up and put on hold, jobs are acquired and lost, money is painstakingly saved and spent. (Did I mention there’s a serial killer? There is also a serial killer.) Most of all, there is Francie herself, so often brave and stoic and unapologetically literary. How can you not love a girl who writes in her journal, “Am I curious about sex?” The narrator goes on, “She studied the last sentence. The line on the inner edge of her right eyebrow deepened. She crossed out the sentence and rewrote it to read: ‘I am curious about sex.’” This book is so intensely about being a woman, being poor, being alive, and I have not read another one with its breadth or accuracy.
There is a beautiful passage toward the end of the novel, when Francie and her brother go up to their tenement’s roof on New Year’s Eve and they look out over their neighborhood. Francie sees “at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River,” and says aloud, “There’s no other place like it.”
“Brooklyn. It’s a magic city and it isn’t real.”
“It’s just like any other place.”
“It isn’t! I go to New York every day and New York’s not the same….It’s like—yes—like a dream.”
Brooklyn’s magic, for Francie, is as dreamlike as her grandmother Rommely’s Santa Claus, even though it’s “a dream of being poor and fighting.” Francie’s Brooklyn is all belief and cynicism, hope and loss, and it has fattened and stretched her heart and made it strong. Though she leaves it behind, Francie is better for having lived there.
Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not dreamlike—it is thoroughly real. Still, it’s the kind of story Francie’s grandmother would take up and tell, the kind of story that makes the heart bigger, the kind of story that sticks. It’s not always the subtlest of novels, but it’s one of the wisest. I am always carrying it with me.