Friday, August 27, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

In the days of my youth I discovered two things. The first was the Marx Brothers. The second was that people actually wrote books about popular culture, giving more details about the creation and creators of the media I enjoyed. These two discoveries led me on a journey through a number of biographies of Sam and Minnie's sons and then on to books about vaudeville and its stars. I fell in love with the turn of the 20th Century, an era where all sorts of immigrants came to America, struggled through poverty and assimilation to build a better life for themselves. Today one of my bookshelves bears testimony to that love affair, packed with some of those books I read all those years ago.

Anyway, back to the present. I've just ended my summer break by picking up the next school book my daughter will be reading. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a (semi-autobiographical) tale set right in the middle of that beloved era, in that wonderful city of cities, New York. I should be delighted, no? Well, it seems like Ms. Smith didn't have the same experience as those vaudeville heroes of yore. Or, more likely, she didn't sugarcoat the reality of life in Brooklyn a hundred years ago. This story of a girl, Francie Nolan, growing up in a poor neighborhood was hard to read. Unlike the stories where the immigrant families "had everything but money", the Nolans had to fight and struggle for every little thing and sometimes they ended up losing. I longed for a thread of hope, some indication that Francie would indeed triumph in the end. That hope, however, was very tenuous--at times I lost it entirely. Much like life, of course. And that's the real strength of this book. It is incredibly real. As I read, I got lost in the tenements of Brooklyn and, quite frankly, that dragged me down. I loved some of the characters, but my affection was tainted with disagreements with some of their actions and regret with their character flaws. I still haven't decided if I want to keep this book or lt it go, but it is definitely one that was worth checking out.

LibraryThing link


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