“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

A beautiful book…

is the first sentence that came to my mind as soon as I finished this book. A simple sentence, yet that is enough to describe this book.

I almost wish I could just leave it here and there for the review of this book. No adorned adjectives are needed to describe it, and no attempt at a ‘sophisticated’ review would do justice. But that would be a cheap shot, wouldn’t it?

For a while now I’ve been reading non-fiction books, which I rarely do, but I couldn’t help but realize that there are so many things in the ‘real world’ to know about, and it was about time I get out of the cocoon of fiction to immerse myself in knowledge I could, perhaps, actually use. However, books like this teach me once more why we, as people, need novels and cannot solely survive on non-fiction books.

The world in which Francie Nolan, a little girl in the heart of Brooklyn lives, is a world of poverty, hunger, loneliness and misunderstanding. Her poor papa, good at heart, spends his day drinking and singing and his love for his family and sense of responsibility fail to match his duties as father and husband. Her mama, young but realistic, is forced to work non-stop and at any odd job to maintain this family. Her lack of imagination, her unwillingness and inability to demonstrate love, and her bigger love for her younger brother hurt little Francie more than she could know. Neely is young, playful, good-looking, and has been spared of the concerns and maturity only first borns are bound to know.

However, the world Francie sees is different. It is a world full of songs, love, imagination, books, care and subtle fun. The songs her papa used to sing with his soft voice while coming back home as he climbed the stairs were the perfect ending to a good long day. Her mama’s will to work and quirks like throwing away left over coffee allowed the family to live and to “feel like a millionaire” once in a while. Her writings and books carried her away from their small apartment in Brooklyn to a larger and enchanted world.

But most importantly, and the most beautiful thing in this book is that Francie didn’t let poverty and misery define her world. She didn’t let them become ‘ugly things’, like her grade school teacher vehemently wanted her to do so. She wasn’t envious that her baby sister wouldn’t know hunger like she and Neely did during all their childhood, instead she was sorry that she wouldn’t know the fun the two had. The strength, perseverance and love she displays throughout the book are beyond words, yet Bettie Smith knows exactly how to do so, drawing from her own experience at times. It is humbling to witness the harsh life of this little girl, who has to think of supporting her family at 15 years old, when I’m nearing 30 and still don’t know what to do with my life. (True, these are different times, but still, I do feel very small next to her)

And to end this review, a passage from the precious world of Francie, who turns numbers into people when she first learns them. This is an endearing passage and surprisingly, I vaguely have the impression I too considered numbers as some imaginary characters when I was, much, younger. Although I did rather have the idea that 1 was a baby boy and 2 a baby girl. 2 is much more interesting than 1, don’t you think so?

“Naught was a babe in arms. He gave no trouble. Whenever he appeared, you just “carried” him. The figure 1 was a pretty baby girl just learning to walk, and easy to handle; 2 was a baby boy who could walk and talk a little. And 3 was an older boy in kindergarten, who had to be watched a little. Then there was 4, a girl of Francie’s age. She was almost as easy to “mind” as 2. The mother was 5, gentle and kind. The father, 6, was harder than the others, but very just. But 7 was mean. He was a crotchety old grandfather and not at all accountable for how he came out. The grandmother, 8, was hard too, but easier to understand than 7. Hardest of all was 9. He was company and what a hard time fitting him into family life!”

There are several passages that brought tears to my eyes, and I was glad to find out that I wasn’t ‘dead inside’ after all, since I could not make myself cry watching ‘Toy Story 3’ some time ago, like basically every single person I knew did. I guess I have a better time relating to little girls in Brooklyn than to toys…


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