Recently I have luck for reading books which despite being set in the XX century and in totally different places, yet I can relate to them that much that I dare to say that not much has changed in our society from the tale written by Betty Smith.
Not surprising that I found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so moving as this simple story is an American classic, but what surprises me is that I have never heard of this book before. But it meant this book to me as I first spotted it and not knowing anything about it I ordered it from the library. Still didn’t know what to expect I started reading it and very quickly I was drawn to the story of Frannie and Brooklyn of her time.
But what makes me think the most of this book is the myth about America, a promised land for many until now. In the turbulent time in Europe in the XIX century, there were 52 million people who left everything they knew and went to the land of prosperity and a good fortune. What is the American dream exactly and what promises were told people who left Europe? Had they expected to work very hard and been very poor anyway?
“What did we have in the old country? Nothing. We were peasants. We starved. Well, then, we came over here. It wasn’t so much better except that they didn’t take your father for the military the way they would do in the old country. But otherwise, it’s been harder. I miss the homeland, the trees and broad fields, the familiar way of living, the old friends”.
Frannie was born in 1900 in Brooklyn in a very indigent family, her parents were very young, too young to vote and yet already with the responsibility of kids upon them. Kate, Francie’s mother, was just seventeen, she came from the family who emigrated to the promised land from Austria and her mother, illiterate didn’t send her firstborn daughter to school as she didn’t know that she could do it for free. When Kate and Evy were born some services finally reached Mary Rommely and the rest of her children luckily completed the six grade. It was a maximum high education they could afford but Kate’s mother believed in education and she had a hope that the children can do better than parents, and she passed this faith to her daughter. Kate very quickly realised herself that she can only rely on her hard work and not so much on her husband Johnny Nolan - a charming and handsome man, but not very responsible though.
She read her children as her illiterate mum advise her a Protestant Bible, although they were Catholics and a book of Shakespeare.
“And every day you must read of each to your child - even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great - knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world”.
So Kate soon found herself reading every evening those books for Frannie and Neeley, but she also watch her kids and questions their fate. She believed in education as a key to a better life but reality was more than harsh. She worked all days while her husband spends his days drinking and waiting for a job to find him, yet Frannie loved her father dearly. He was a free bird, loved singing and didn’t see problems of everyday life like his wife. He decided to help Frannie with changing school in a better area, although it was not exactly in a law way. He wanted singing lessons although it turns into a disaster while Kate successfully was taking piano lessons together with her kids. She was a very practical person and convinced the piano teacher that one hour of her cleaning apartment is equal to one hour of a piano lesson. Work was work and everybody needed to work even Frannie and Neeley.
This story is about hard work and it shows for Frannie very early that life is not fair. No matter how much a person can try, there are always circumstances making life only harder.
I love this story for being so universal, there are people now who still count every penny, who work hard all life and not having much, and there are people rich and mean too.
There are parents who have favorite child and they are children who dream about education.
It is a story of Fannie but her parents and especially her Mum played an important role. She question life and she had a dream for her children to go to college. She followed her Mum advice to get a land and be an owner although it wasn’t exactly part of land her Mum talked about nor she wanted that. She needed to make all her hard life choices and life didn’t spare her, but she was a lucky woman, having her sisters and Mum around and her children healthy and obedient. She concluded once:
“It’s come at last […] the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. When there wasn’t enough food in the house you pretended that you weren’t hungry so they could have more. In the cold of a winter’s night you got up and put your blanket on their bed so they wouldn’t be cold. You’d kill anyone who tried to harm them - I tried my best to kill that man in the hallway. Then one sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spacer them”.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a vibrant story of Brooklyn at the beginning of XX century, full of emigrants from Europe, full of dreams, hard work, and life’s tales. It is an interesting book and worth to read and think over our time too, as migration and hard work still continues and dreaming about education, having broken heart happens today as it used happened in the whole history of our civilization.
I highly recommend reading this story everyone as simplicity and wisdom in this book can’t disappoint!
Reviewer: Monika Barrera
Review rating: 5/5
Date published: 1944 in the UK
Publisher: Randon House
Genre: Fiction Classic, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction