A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is has become my Official Book to Read When Moving, though completely by accident. I read the book for the first time several years ago, in the midst of moving to a new city for a job. More recently, I reread the book while moving back for a different job. Reading the book while moving both times was a coincidence, but a fortuitous one. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a simple but beautiful book that makes me reflect on my own life, find beauty in everyday things, and also feel grateful for what I have.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is considered a classic, and it was even included on the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century under the category ‘Favorites of Childhood and Youth.’ Despite that, I’ve found that not many people are familiar with the title. In fact, I had never heard of it until a co-worker enthusiastically recommended it in 2011.
Very little actually happens in the book. There isn’t a clear plot or story that can be summed up in a sentence or two. It is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan and her family in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Think Little House on the Prairie, but with urban poverty instead of frontier challenges. Smith, who grew up in Brooklyn herself, captures little details about life in a family that is just barely getting by. There is Katie, Francie’s pragmatic mother who reads to her children from the Bible and from Shakespeare every night, hoping they’ll get the education she did not, and Johnny, Francie’s loveable father, an easy-going musician who struggles with alcoholism but is his daughter’s greatest supporter.
Francie herself is a reader, writer, thinker, and dreamer. She often seems distanced from her peers, preferring her stories but very observant of life around her, finding beauty in unexpected places, but not glossing over the suffering and the poverty she’s surrounded by.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also story for people who love books, because the narrator, Francie Nolan loves books. Betty Smith describes the “magic hour” when Francie learns to read:
“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. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived” (166-167).
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a quiet, slow-moving book, but it’s made its way onto my list of favorites. I have a feeling that the book is partially autobiographical, with Francie’s experiences being based off of Betty Smith’s own childhood. Because of this, Francie and the people in her life are incredibly believable, well-developed characters. By the time I finished reading, I felt like I knew the characters personally.