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In which we see Brooklyn in a bygone era through the eyes of a bookish young narrator

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author: Betty Smith

What it’s about: Francie Nolan thinks that Brooklyn has a sort of magic. It’s unlike any other place in the world, even better than New York City.  She lives in Williamsburg at the turn of the century with her beautiful but stoic mother who makes a living as a cleaning woman, her kind but often-drunk father who works intermittently as a singing waiter, and her younger brother Neelie who is her partner in adventure and misfortune. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie’s childhood, but also purely captures a long-ago moment in history. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family slotting pennies into a tin can bank in hopes of one day owning a piece of land. Francie’s mother invents a game called Arctic Explorer, in which the children pretend they’re lost in the far North waiting for rescue care packages to arrive when there’s nothing in the house to eat. But there are many moments of happiness as well. Francie loves to sit perched on her fire escape with a book in her lap, visiting the library every day to borrow a book. She loves the good days spent with her father, waiting up at night to hear him singing “Molly Malone” in the hallway and racing to the door to open it before the final note.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those classics that somehow fell through the cracks of my reading history and I’m only getting around to now. I am glad that my first reading comes while I’m living in New York, because it adds an extra dimension to Francie’s life to know what’s become of the neighborhoods she describes and to read about the city in a bygone era. Pre-WWI New York is fascinating in its differences from today and Betty Smith seems to know just the right scenes to convey everyday life in a way that’s compelling and endearing. I found myself engrossed in scenes that described how Francie’s mother would go about paying for dinner and which shops they would visit and how they would haggle. These details might have seemed mundane at the time, but to read them now is truly a treasure. Smith has a beautiful voice that adds weight and dignity to the smallest daily concern.

You also care passionately for her characters since they are so uncompromisingly real. Francie loves her father more than anyone else in the world, but also is completely aware that he can’t support the family. A child’s love and adoration is mixed up with an adult understanding of the world. Francie and Neely are adult-children, all too familiar with hunger, poverty and unfairness. But their youth also gives them resilience and they turn out just fine.

Would I recommend? Yes! In the same vein as I Capture The Castle or Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of a girl growing up and evokes a particular place and time with stunning detail. A must-read American classic.

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