Tuesday, April 30, 2013

[Reading the Classics] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn // Betty Smith

[Source: Deconstructed from 9780060736262; © Harper Perennial 2005]
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Author: Betty Smith
Publication Year: 1943
Pages: 500
Violence | Sexual ContentProfanity

Verdict: A poignant reflection on the coming-of-age of a girl whose future is as fragile as it is hopeful. The discord among social classes is explored with startling realism. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is now forever in my heart, stealing a place among my top 10 favourites of all time. The sensibility of this young girl, Francie, will astound you. Her quiet unnerving strength is inspirational as well as heart-breaking.
My thoughts

It is a magnificent coming of age story.
I have always had a personal love for coming-of-age stories, which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn most definitely is. This novel is not short, and maybe you're wondering what the story is about. If I could summarise the story it would be something like: the situation in which an impoverished family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has been placed, the circumstances that have led to the situation, and a young girl's enduring will to change things.

Family remains top priority.
My heart swells with joy whenever I allow myself to think of this book. It is a delicately told story about a family who live in poverty, but above all survive in their determination to protect each other. This book is as much Francie's story as it is her family's. Tragedy strikes, something that is foreseen at an early point in the novel.

A novel of growth and learning.
This is the kind of book I'd give a child, and I hope she/he will have the patience to read right through because it is a real gem. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn shows the value of having an education and beliefs and something to work towards. It never felt preachy to me; Francie's parents did not have a proper education and their notion is that perhaps that is the reason for their poor living situations so it just makes sense that these values are taught time and time again.

I love her. She is just an amazing protagonist and she goes through so much. She's bookish and wants to be a writer someday, but she has to make many sacrifices until education isn't such a clear linear path for her anymore. There are also many difficult tribulations that she is presented with, but she bounces back and grows from the experiences.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in the early 1900s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 'Betty Smith' grew up in around the same circumstances as Francie and I think this novel is made infinitely more special when you realise that the author had that connection to the story.

The social class divide is explored, which broke my heart a little each time.
The story begins with Francie and Neely 'ragpicking' - accumulating trash to earn money for food. Right from the start the difference from the poor and the rich (or at least better off) is established. Some other instances involve immunisations and in another a doll.

This book is called a modern classic. Personally do I think it stands to that label? One million times YES! I got so much out of this book and the themes are easily felt and understood. The writing is accessible. Francie and her family are impeccably conceptualised. There's simplicity in the story, but I feel that if I reread it I'd be able to grasp more fully the complexities that run underneath. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was such a treat to read!

About the author

Elizabeth Lillian Wehner (December 15, 1896 - January 17, 1972), who would write under the pen-name 'Betty Smith',  grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she and her family were poor. These experiences shaped her writing of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
[To be continued in the next Betty Smith Reading the Classics.]

Works by Betty Smith (in order of publication)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Tomorrow Will Be Better | Maggie-Now | Joy in the Morning

About reading the classics

I have been reading more classics lately, and rather than just reading them, I've decided to share some of my thoughts with you.

I will never write an essay--that's not the point of this, but if it gets even one person even thinking about reading this book then I'll be happy. Discussion is encouraged. If you have read this book or anything by this author, please leave a comment. =)

#1: Of Mice and Men // John Steinbeck
#2: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn // Betty Smith
#3: Mrs Dalloway // Virginia Woolf

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