In high school, I started a years-long love affair with classic literature. I’m not entirely certain what sparked my interest — most likely, the challenge such books posed — but it soon became my goal to read every title on my English teachers’ shelves. One of those teachers was lucky enough to have a class titled “Novels,” in which members selected works to read in groups and discuss during and after the reading process. Her shelves were lined with alluring titles and promising covers — Rebecca, The Red Pony, The Old Man and the Sea, East of Eden, A Tale of Two Cities.
I devoured these works and sought out others. Anna Karenina and The Fountainhead remain the most daunting (length-wise) tomes I’ve ever tackled, and though I’m certain I didn’t pick up on all of the allusions and nuances within the pages, I can remember finding something to love in each of the works. Anna Karenina remains one of my favorite works of classic literature, and I have every intent of rereading it, now that I’ve got a few more years under my belt.
Now that I’m a teacher, I struggle to incorporate classics into my classroom. I’ve heard from numerous administrators that there’s “no point” in teaching these difficult works to students who barely even speak the same language anymore. They tell me that Shakespeare is frivolous, Dickens outdated, Steinbeck — “Who’s that again?”
But I find a degree of beauty, wit, and artistry in classic works that modern authors rarely come close to grazing with their tawdry tales of adultery (why is this the major plot concept in 95% of adult fiction?) and crime.
I recently read the modern classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a semi-autobiographical novel penned by Betty Smith in 1943. Most of my acquaintances today — and in truth, many avid readers, too — would deem this novel boring, aimless, and plodding. Admittedly, very little “action” occurs in Brooklyn, but in this case, that doesn’t detract from the work at all. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.
- Brooklyn spans some 520-odd pages and a handful of years in Francie Nolan’s life as the daughter of first-generation Irish and Austrian immigrants. Set in the early 1910s, the novel portrays a very realistic — and often heartbreaking — image of life for the impoverished immigrant families that comprised a majority of New York City. Such accounts, though fictionalized, are crucial in understanding the history and development of our country.
- As far as character studies go, Brooklyn is unrivaled. Truly, the book is entirely character-driven: Francie’s observations, choices, and reactions propel the story forward. But Smith doesn’t stop there; rather, readers are also treated to intimate portraits of Katie and Johnny (Francie’s parents) and Neeley, her younger brother. Each individual is exquisitely crafted to reflect a unique set of core beliefs, dreams, and fears which affect their relationships with one another. You will not find characters of this caliber in much of contemporary fiction.
- Francie’s naive interpretation of the world in her early years (and honestly, into her teen years) is a breath of fresh air. She has not been tainted by unsupervised access to internet porn or trashy adult cartoons that her parents allow her to watch because they’re too lazy to, you know, parent — the heroine of this book is remarkably trusting in her worldview and untarnished by modern obsessions with gore, sex, and violence. Few children of my own generation, and certainly even fewer in the generations to follow, have any concept of the true naiveté that accompanied childhood a century ago. Francie’s story is a sweet (and often amusing) deviation from our modern world.
- The prose — oh! the prose! — is simply divine. For example:
The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. (p. 6)
The spruce trees began coming into the neighborhood the week before Christmas. Their branches were corded to hold back the glory of their spreading and probably to make shipping easier. Vendors rented space on the curb before a store and stretched a rope from pole to pole and leaned the trees against it. All day they walked up and down this one-sided avenue of aromatic leaning trees, blowing on stiff ungloved fingers and looking with bleak hope at those people who paused. A few ordered a tree set aside for the day; others stopped to price, inspect and conjecture. But most came just to touch the boughs and surreptitiously pinch a fingerful of spruce needles together to release the fragrance. And the air was cold and still, and full of the pine smell and the smell of tangerines which appeared in the stores only at Christmas time and the mean street was truly wonderful for a little while.
5. There’s a wonderful, tender undercurrent of perseverance and hope in Brooklyn. Amid the pathetic, drunken fathers and the failed dreams and the unglorious starvation, there is an unfailing thread of hope that pushes Francie — and readers — forward, ever seeking a future of possibility. This folklore-esque spirit of the American Dream, long-since tarnished, is bittersweet and evocative of a time when less wasn’t more but it wasn’t all that bad, either.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t a thriller. It’s not a fast-paced action novel, it’s not a tale of romance and guile, and it’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of book. But it is a brilliant retelling of an all-but-forgotten era in what was once the most dreamed-of country in the world; a coming-of-age story gilded with intentional prose and simple but striking imagery.
If I’m being quite honest with myself, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also my favorite book. Period. And that’s a designation that hasn’t changed in ten or fifteen years, so.
Do yourself a favor: borrow, buy, or steal (from a friend) a copy today. Savor Francie’s story. Share it with someone else. Read it again. Roll the words around in your mind until 1912 Brooklyn comes to life with an eleven-year-old girl perched on the fire escape of her tenement home, reading a book while her empty stomach grumbles at the lack of food. Let the story move you from start to blessed finish.
Overall: 5 blindingly shiny stars.