A friend recently suggested I revisit my teenage self’s bookshelf . After doing so I was struck with an idea, what if I revisit a BUNCH of old favorites and see how I react to them now compared to how I reacted back when I first read them? So a project was born. Over the course of the next year, I’m going to occasionally revisit my teenage bookshelf and write a little about it… enjoy!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
When I was 13…
…I was not cool. I was shy, and awkward, and spent a lot of my time hiding. Yes, I was 13 and literally spent a lot of time in weird places so that no one could find me. I was also lonely, but at the time that was probably a side effect of the hiding. When I couldn’t actually hide, I attempted invisibility via burying my nose in a book. 13 was also the year I was bumped into honors English classes, and I found a place where I didn’t feel the need to hide so much.
Mrs. A* recognized my ravenous love of literature early and encouraged it throughout the year. On top of the two assigned novels we were asked to read that year (A Day No Pigs Would Die and The Giver), she would challenge me with weekly book recommendations, and once a week she would sign me out of lunch to talk about them. It made me feel special and helped me overcome some of my issues with shyness. She was a driving force in my desire to become a teacher myself.
At our last meeting she had a small rectangular package wrapped in blue paper.
She gave me A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
I DEVOURED the coming of age story of Francie Nolan and her family. I read it, and as soon as I finished it I read it again. I wanted to be Francie. She was a lot like me; she was around my age, the daughter of first generation Americans, a reader and writer, and lonely. Francie was lonely like me and I felt like we bonded.
When I was 13 the story was all about Francie; she was the only thing I cared about when reading it—obviously… she was my friend—whenever the story focused on her parents or aunts, I just didn’t have the same feeling. I cared about what happened to the girls who was like me, like it was some sort of guide to being happier (the fact that the Nolans didn’t have a great life never really affected the way I read the story back then). I fell in love with the romance of the past; turn of the century Brooklyn was like a fairytale kingdom to me, and I (naively) just wanted to fall into that world. But mostly, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became my friend when I didn’t have any, and it always reminds me of a time when someone saw me when I wanted to be invisible.
…I finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time in many years, and I am so happy that I did. It gave me all the same feelings—I enjoyed visiting my old friend—with the benefit of being much older and world weary. But, ya know what? I missed a lot of things when I was younger.
I completely missed the dirty side of the coin.
When I was young I saw things the way Francie does—like a dream. The book was a quaint look into a faraway time and place about good people working hard and eventually triumphing. But there is a completely different side to the story, a dark side. The Nolans’ lives are hard. They try their very best, but throughout the novel they are starving, mistreated, and wracked by the anxiety of trying to build their lives on shifting sands. Reading this book in my 20s, a graduate of college, a teacher, someone with a mountain of debt, and obviously a woman with my childhood firmly behind me, I was less compelled by Francie’s journey and more interested in the novel’s adults.
This time through I fell in love with the Rommely women. I mean, I’ve always admired Katie’s strength, Sissy’s fire and passion for life and Mary’s wisdom (Evy just kind of seems to be there… beyond her tribulations with her husband and the time a horse fell in love her, she wasn’t that interesting.), but this time I saw them in more dimensions.
I had never realized how intensely human Katie Nolan (nèe Rommely) is. She has always been an example of strength and sacrifice, bravely working herself to the bone to keep her family from falling into irrevocable poverty, but now I find myself drawn to her very human anxieties. The passages featuring her internal debates color her in a way that elevates her beyond the “long suffering mother” trope that show up in many coming of age stories (I’m lookin’ at you Marmee March). Katie wants her children to be educated and to become great things but also wants to keep them safe and fed, and sometimes these desires come into conflict. She is a woman who knowingly made one flawed choice—mortgaging her future for the temporary happiness of a handsome face—and spent much of her life paying for it. I never appreciated the richness her “failings” gave her character. I feed for her; I want her to have a happy ending more than anyone else.
She used to be an obstacle to get around so that I could learn more about Francie… I even actively disliked her because I thought she didn’t really love Francie at all, but now I love her. I love her because she is so flawed, fights against her flaws, and when she can’t, she bears up under them. She accepts the consequences of her flawed choices… even if they make her miserable. She’s one of the most human characters I’ve ever come across on paper… and I missed all that before.
Another character I blew past was Mary Rommely (Katie, Evy, and Sissy’s mother and Francie’s grandmother). She was even less interesting to me, because she was even older than Francie’s parents AND she wasn’t in the story that much so I didn’t care about her—I was pretty short sighted when I was 13. But this time (and if I’m honest a few times before this one) she, and her wise words really jumped off the page at me.
She is an uneducated immigrant who didn’t know enough to send her oldest child to school at all. Yet she still values education and sees it as the only way out of lives of poverty and drudgery (as a teacher I happen to believe there is a lot of truth in that idea however naïve it is). Not just education though, when Francie is born she counsels Katie to teach her to believe in things; in addition to reading her the Bible and Shakespeare, she must tell her fairy tales, myths, and ghost stories. And she must believe in Santa Claus until she is at least six years old, because “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for” (Smith 84). Knowledge is one thing to Mary, something that helps you exist as a free person in the world, but imagination is the thing that makes it so you can survive in a world where the truth basically spares no chance to grind us into the ground. The realm of fantasy and imagination are the best balm against the pains of reality. It can’t stop the world from hurting you, but it can soothe the wounds it inflicts, and having the ability to retreat into it occasionally is a useful ability. It’s a great lesson to take away from a simple—deceptively simple—story.
Was it Worth a Re-Read?
Yes. A thousand times, yes. I mean it’s not my favorite book—not by a longshot, that honor goes to Moby-Dick—but it’s definitely a book that helped shape me into the reader and person I am today. It reminded me of a teacher who made me want to teach, and I got to discover some new and really beautiful things about it. And that only made me love it more.
If You Like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Try:
Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1925): It’s a similar story, young woman grows up in poverty in turn of the century New York. Bread Givers is, however, darker than ATGB; there is a more real and pressing sense of poverty, and oppression… it’s more real and definitely lacks the dream-like quality Smith conjures up. But it’s a great book. I read this in my junior year of college.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctrow (1975): But if you like turn of the century settings with probing and revealing looks at history and Americana, Ragtime is the book for you. I read this when I was 18.