Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

At the Berryville Library this summer, we’re all busy reading the books on the Great American Read list and pondering which ones we’ll vote for in the Great Berryville Read. When I mentioned the Great American Read to my friend and one of my former English professors Elise Bishop, she mentioned really enjoying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Well, that was one I hadn’t read, so I was determined to make it one of my selections. I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it! (Thanks again for the great suggestion, Mrs. B!)

On the surface, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic coming-of-age story, focusing on 1910s Brooklyn girl Francie Nolan. Francie is a bright, inquisitive girl who loves her parents, her younger brother, and her quirky aunts. However, her own life is hardly all roses and sunshine. Her father is a charming but irresponsible alcoholic while her more serious, diligent mother is emotionally distant. Money is tight not just for the Nolans but also for everyone in the slum neighborhood they live in.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Francie and her family don’t find themselves the subject of scorn in the community’s complex pecking order.

What I most enjoyed about this book was how very realistic the characters were. They all reminded me of people I know or have met, and their interactions with each other, which range from hilarious to poignant to heartwarming, rang true. It would be easy for a book to demonize Francie’s parents, but they are never treated that way. Instead, they emerge as surprisingly complex figures in their own right, whose flaws are never exaggerated nor minimized.

This is true beyond the human characters, as well. The author grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood that she depicts in the book, and it is very much a character in its own right. She does a magnificent job of bringing this setting and the 1910s time period to vivid life. Smith doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of life in the neighborhood, but she also does not ignore the lighter, fun side of it.

I was also impressed with how realistic the depiction of poverty was. This book was written in the 1940s, so I was pleasantly surprised by how frank the book treats social issues and the sometimes complex relationships in the book. Likewise, Francie’s own contradictory feelings of shame and pride in her background ring true.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a compelling portrait of a young girl’s journey to adulthood and a struggling family’s quest for survival and success against difficult odds. The author’s own genuine but clear-eyed affection for the people and places of her youth shine through. The result is a bittersweet exploration of family, love, poverty, and education that is well worth reading.

*Ebook and audiobook also available on Libby.

Recommended for those who enjoy coming-of-age stories and historical fiction about everyday people.

Please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information and to place a hold on this item. And please be sure to vote for your favorites on the Great American Read! Voting open now through October 18, 2018.

Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? What are you voting for in the Great American Read? What Great American Read books are you reading this summer? Tell us in the comments!


Author: berryvillelibrary

"Our library, our future"

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