A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Thoughts  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2005 (orig 1943), 493 pages, tradeback.

Purchased for September’s The Bookies Book Club.

“Tell the truth and write the story.”
– p.199

WHAT’s it ABOUT:  This is a coming of age story of a young girl named Francie in the not-so-good section of Brooklyn in the early years of the 20th century. I enjoyed that it starts in 1912 because it is exactly 100 years ago. They say that nothing much happens in the way of plot in this book, but actually a LOT happens! It just doesn’t quite have the “beginning-action-ending” plot arc but a meandering slow-moving reality feel to it. It was a profoundly touching look at a time period and segment of American history.

In the words of Anna Quindlen in the Foreword (which I read after the book, per usual, but is ok to read first, in case you need to know such),

When it first appeared, in 1943, it was called, by those critics who liked it, an honest book, and that is accurate as far as it goes. But it is more than that: It is deeply indelibly true. Honesty is casting bright light on your own experience; truth is casting it on the experiences of all, which is why, six decades after it was published and became an instant bestseller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn continues to be read by people from all countries and all circumstances. Early on in its explosive success it was described as a book about city life, a a story about grinding poverty, a tale of the struggles of immigrant America. But all those things are setting, really, and the themes are farther-reaching: the fabric of family, the limits of love, the loss of innocence, and the birth of knowledge.

I very much enjoyed this book. I wonder if I would have loved it as much if I had read it much earlier in my life, though. Could it be this book resonates more reading it as adult? Is this considered YA? because it would fit ‘my’ definition of YA: protagonist being ‘young’. Some scenes were just wonderful! The librarian and her attitudes and Francie’s wanting desperately to be recognized for her talents. The descriptions of the educational process were my favorite. I loved Francie’s mother – she was so honestly described. Though the book did not sugar-coat anything, it still portrayed even the dirty ugly side of life has having good and hopeful elements.

I heartily recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I’m thinking of so many people I want to foist this upon! Holly, Miss Madeline, my neighbor and her 12  yo daughter, Elaine…

Considering that this book is FICTION and yet obviously has much in parallel to the author’s life, I thank Ms. Quinlen for explaining. Apparently, an editor suggested it NOT be a memoir but be reconfigured and I think it works very well. It makes one wonder just how much Francie is Betty Smith and vice versa. What a tough and amazing woman she must have been. On this note, it reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

RATING: Four slices of pie.

Also, because it is #ITalong season, I must mention that the day I read about Francie and how much she loved the library was also the day that I listened to the section of King’s IT  on how much young Ben Hanscom loved the library. EERILY DELIGHTFUL!!


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46 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  1. Oh I’m so glad you loved it!! I do think many people consider this YA but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as a teen. I read it for the first time in my late 20s and have read it twice more since then. Katie Nolan reminds me of my mother. 🙂

    1. Oh Amanda! I was thinking of you when I wrote this because I loved what you wrote in goodreads for this book. In fact, I wanted to ask you about the oxygen scene because I don’t remember it!

    1. It DID have an interesting balance between sad and hopeful, didn’t it? I was amazed at how skilled the author was in portraying the father, especially.

    1. Perhaps, the right time will come along and then it will be the RIGHT time. Don’t you love when that happens with a special book? Because this is a classic and I hope you discover it.

  2. Ree

    I’m only about a quarter of the way thru it, but I am completely in love with this book & its characters!!!! I know I will be sad to see it end…
    Oh, how I love Francie…and her mother…and so many others ❤

  3. I LOVED this book! I read it for the first and only time last summer and fell completely in love with it. It wasn’t even really on my radar, but I was in NYC, and it was on the bookshelf, so I picked it up and was immediately into it. I want to read the “sequel,” too, about Francie when she goes to University of Michigan. I adore her. I don’t know if I would have when I was younger.

  4. Thanks for sharing about this modern classic. I’ve heard a lot about it but still have not read it. Your wonderful review and 4 slices of pie ratings makes me push it up my TBR list. 😉

  5. I just read this for the first time this year, at age 21. Although I can see why some people label it as YA (the age of the protagonist, the writing style that is suitable for younger audiences, etc.), I’m glad I read it now rather than as a teen. Although I probably would have enjoyed it then, I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much as I do now. It’s such a beautiful coming-of-age story with themes of family, the importance of education, loss of innocence, and pulling oneself up by one’s boot-straps, and I don’t know if I would have understood the book on a deeper level had I read it when I was younger.

    Nice review!

  6. I sorta kinda skimmed this review because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is another one of those books that I’m hoping to get to very soon. I like the comment thread. I’m curious what I’ll think of it and whether I’ll wish my younger self had known about it. I don’t think I even heard of the book till sometime in the past decade.

  7. I first read this book when I was eleven. The school librarian suggested it to me back then and I just fell in love with it so that for many years, it was my all-time favorite book. It’s still one of my favorites (I no longer classify books as “all-time favorite”). I’ve read it nearly every year, sometimes more than once, since that first time and I still love it. I’ve never seen it as YA though I know many people classify it as such. I’ve always just considered it a classic piece of literature. But I don’t have a personal definition for YA other than “I know it when I read it.”

    From what I’ve read about Betty Smith, this book is heavily based on her own life. She wrote a few other books as well, also based on her life. Apart from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I also love Joy in the Morning. It feels like a sequel to ATGiB, mostly because it is based on Smith’s first marriage. As time has gone by, I have started to identify less with ATGiB and more with JitM. But both offer so much to readers, they are both worth reading.

  8. I read it under the age of 18, I remember, because my father kept pushing it on me! I remember that I did like it, but should read it again, because I’ve forgotten it.

  9. So many books I want to read and haven’t gotten to yet. This one is now a little higher on the “Would you get to this one already, Debra Anne?!!” list thanks to your review. 🙂

  10. I read this one for the first time in 2007 and just adored it. I don’t know if it would have been as powerful to me when I was younger. I loved watching Francie’s love of reading grow. Her mother was so strong and such a tragic character in some ways. So glad you loved it!

    1. What I meant in my comparison with TTTC was in the wondering “Was this part true? Memoir?! Fictionalized truth?! Or what?” although Tree is not as big a deal in the asking. I did wonder more abt that in TTTC.

    1. Yes! I didn’t mark that passage in my goodreads update (darn it) but will findit before our club discussion. I also need to find the oxygen mention that Amanda says is classic but which I don’t recall.

      We had a mini-bookclub “ad hoc” meeting yesterday todiscuss King’s 11/22/63 and we all had to stop ourselves from talking about “Tree” as one of us kept fondly referring to it.

  11. This is one of those books that I always think I’ve read (and loved), but then realize, no, I haven’t read yet (so not sure why I feel like I loved the book …!). But I do have it in my physical TBR stack! So perhaps it’s time to dig it out so that next time I think I’ve read it, I really will have already. Because it sounds like a very good read.

  12. Why have I never read this book? I have had it in my hands at the bookstore several times only to be lured away by other shiny, newer releases. I need to make a Half Price Books run this weekend – let’s see if I can find it and remember to pick it up.

  13. I really enjoyed this one too. I had a tough time with Francie’s mother, though. I guess she just reminded me too much of things that I found frustrating about my own upbringing. I felt Francie was neglected a bit in favor of her son. Kind of sad. I loved Francie and her relationship with her father.

    1. Yes, that was interesting. I don’t have kids but I ‘spect it would be very hard IF you knew your mother had a favorite. And how hard as a mother to know you can’t help but have a favorite? Humans are flawed; love has many shades of complexity, I suppose.

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