Paul's Corner: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Betty Smith

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn.  Some people call it the Tree of Heaven.  No matter where it’s seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to meet the sky.  It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps.  It grows up out of cellar gratings.  It is the only tree that grows out of cement.  It grows lushly. . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth.  It would be considered beautiful except there are so many of them.”

So begins Betty Smith’s classic American novel of the generation of emigrants, which poured into the melting pot which was New York City at the turn of the 20th Century.  Irish, Jews, Italians, Poles, each on the run from the impossible circumstances present in their own troubled countries.

Irish girl, Francie Nolan, eleven years old as the novel begins, is bright, curious, and sensitive and lives with her younger brother Neeley and her parents, Johnny, an alcoholic Irish tenor who sings in restaurants and her loving, Illiterate mother, Katie, who takes care of the family.

I read the book first when I was twelve and was captivated by what I felt was its “realism”.  I remember telling my mother, “It’s just like real life.” though it was a long ways from the life I was living at the time. I’ve returned to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn several times since my first experience with “realism”, always with pleasure, often with memories of the way I used to be, the way I used to read and the meaning reading had for me in my lonely puberty.  

Many of you will have read this novel as teenagers and many of you will have loved it as I have.  I invite you to join our Book Group Jan 18 at Prairie Lights.  7 PM.