Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This book came onto my radar thanks to reading  Actually, I think it might have also have been mentioned on another blog I read too, and so with that sort of serendipity, I added it to my reading list: A tree grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

Despite not really being a reprieve from the doom and gloom of my last few books(here, here and here), I did thoroughly enjoy this book. I’ll admit that I’m usually a little reticent to read ‘history’ books – I’m not great at adjusting my imagination to yesteryear, at least that’s what I thought. But I didn’t have any trouble reading, and enjoying this book set in the 1910s. The book, I believe, was meant to be an autobiography, but fears that it wouldn’t sell turned it into a character narrative.

The book focuses on the tween to teen years of the main character, Francie, and her life with her mother (Katie), father (Johnny) and brother Neeley. Evidently, all the other characters of the neighborhood and extended family are also woven in the narrative. Francie lives in Brooklyn in relative poverty – which was hard to grasp in some respects, as it’s hard to know what a penny then is worth in today’s money! But from the tales, it’s clear that anyone who collects trash in exchange for pennies is surely not living a prosperous life.

There are some delightful observations – of Aunt Sissy who changes after “adopting” a baby (after 10 stillbirths). Francie only seems to be able to establish that when you have a child you stop smelling so heavily perfumed?! There are some great quotes I want to share – some because they are topical to my life, but others for their sweetness. Here’s some of the ones I liked enough to write down:

‘She puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion’

On work/life balance
‘You work eight hours a day covering wires to earn money to buy food and to pay for a place to sleep so that you can keep living to come back and cover more wires. Some people are born and kept living just to come to this. Of course, some of these girls will marry, marry men who have the same kind of life. What will they gain? They’ll gain someone to hold conversations within the few hours at night between work and sleep’

And isn’t that all life seems sometimes?

On hairstyles (for those who read 6 reasons I shaved my head will understand why I added this!)
‘Why do you want short hair like a boy?
It would be easier to take car for.
Taking care of her hair should be a woman’s pleasure.

A woman’s hair is her mystery. Daytimes, it’s pinned up. But at night, alone, with her man, the pins come out and it hangs loose like a shining cape. It makes her a special secret woman for her man

When you’re eighteen you can shave your scalp for all I care

Overall, the book paints a wonderful portrait of living in the tenements in Brooklyn, and the naive life of a young lady, hoping to make more of herself than those before her. There’s a wonderful spirit to the book – of rejecting charity, and ensuring education of the two children to elevate them above the generations before them. I can understand why this book is still being read today!

Oh my – the innocence of youth (mine!) – this was turned into a film in 1945. Rest assured, if anyone had told me, or offered to let me see it, I would have said no – now that I’ve read this, I might open myself up to seeing the film adaption of this ‘olden days’ period.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  1. I read this a long time ago…another one it reminded me of was The Member of the Wedding? And maybe also To Kill a Mockingbird – books with a precocious child as the main character

    • I’ll have to look into The Member of the Wedding. I have read/seen To Kill a Mockingbird (for school actually). I was shocked to know that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was ‘so old’ – even my grandma has seen the film!

  2. Thanks for the review, Sarah – I love historical fiction, will definitely give this a go! (after the current 3 x half-read books!)


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