Review of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/20/05
‘She looked at them and saw them as they were
And what she felt fought off the barest phrase.’
-Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction
I only recently got around to reading Betty Smith’s 1943 memoir-cum-novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, mainly because it had a reputation as an Oprah Winfrey sort of book, meaning I thought it must be one of those tomes filled with good intentions but short on literary merit. After all, the first mention of it I can recall was a snide comment in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon from the 1940s. Boy, do I love to be wrong about things like this. The novel is a total masterpiece. At almost 500 hundred pages there is not a thing I’d cut- not a chapter, paragraph, sentence, nor word. It is a work of fiction the equal of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and some other great works like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, and the best of Kurt Vonnegut and William Kennedy. In fact, it might be the best of the bunch.
In fact, it’s more than great literature. It personally resonates with me because its depth and narrative immersion in a bygone world rivals that of the best of memoirs, including my own True Life series. I include it, now, along with Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics, Loren Eiseley’s autobiography All The Strange Hours, and Terry Matheson’s Alien Abductions, as the most personally influential and resonant books I have read. Aside from that it is a perfect example of what the publishing industry used to do right versus what it does wrong now.
In many ways ATGIB is a very similar story to 1996’s Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. The later book follows a poor Irish American boy who will grow up to be a writer for his first nineteen or so years, while this book chronicles a poor Irish-German American girl who will grow up to be a writer for her first sixteen or so years. AA is set three decades later and the family goes from America to Ireland, and then Frankie goes back to America, while Francie Nolan remains in Brooklyn, until heading off for college at novel’s end. Both books feature strong mothers who endure alcoholic husbands, and both books have colorful families to sketch, as well as great poverty, but ATGIB is a far superior book to AA. Primarily this has to do with editing. AA is a 450 page book that could have been 300 pages, and included far more. But, in it, McCourt tends to ramble on far too much, and recount far too similar stories, with the effect of boring you. His book revels in suffering for suffering’s sake. ATGIB, was submitted as a memoir, but the editor urged Smith to make it a novel, which helped her flesh out the characters and smooth over rough spots. It worked, for ATGIB is a compelling, poetic, and multifarious work, where AA is a spotty work of unrealized potential. I submit these two books as Exhibits A and B in the case of poor editing for most current books’ being so poorly written, rather than just bad writers.
From the opening paragraph to the last the book has a subtle, spare, but highly resonant poetry to it. Here’s the opening:
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the
summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to
Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound,
but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for
it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
The book follows Francie, her two siblings, her mother Katie and her sisters, and her drunken singing waiter father Johnny Nolan from before their birth till 1918 and the First World War. The book opens with Francie at eleven years old, and we get a sumptuous introduction to her world- the neighborhood she lives in, the children she knows, the dying man who is a neighbor, her wacky extended family, and the shops and shopkeeps that inhabit it. Francie is what would now be called a gifted child and her desire for wordplay evidences itself early on. Later in the book she will show insights into things beyond her years- a preference for factory work over office work to not stifle her creativity, her recognition of a grade school teacher’s, Miss Garnder’s, utter lack of understanding of what constitutes good writing- in a prescient precursory glance at what later became known as Political Correctness.
In the second part of the book we flash back to before Francie was born, and see how her parents met, with German Katie Rommely stealing no good Johnny away from her best friend. We also get a glimpse at Francie’s extended family- her bilious German grandfather, his wonderful wife, Francie’s grandmother, and Katie’s coterie of sisters- most notably the oldest, promiscuous, love-starved, but ever-giving Sissy the bigamist. Yet, Sissy grows from promiscuity to stable mother- with a birth and adopted child after eleven miscarriages. What is unique is that Sissy’s progress is not shown in a moral echo chamber, but as an outgrowth of her personality, for good or bad. We also find out about the Nolan clan, and that Johnny, who later dies before his thirty-fifth birthday, was the longest lived male of the alcohol plagued clan. This flashback works well, because it grounds the information we already have about Francie, and deepens it. When we resume we firmly know all we need to about this little girl, that she will make it. Later adventures include Francie’s escaping a pedophilic murderer, her various jobs, the birth of her youngest sibling, her first love, and her constant attraction to telling of her beloved Brooklyn to the world.
What so enchants is that the book avoids the solipsism of characterization. Francie is the reason for the book, but not its end all and be all. The Williamsburg she sketches breathes and hums a century later. Even if I did not cotton to many of the references only a native New Yorker (especially one acquainted with poverty) can, the book thoroughly realizes its world. You can feel the tenements, and the little tree that grows within their confines. The shopkeeps are archetypes, not stereotypes, and the conversations real. There are many moments that lend character to the characters and book. This is something most writers fail at- they tell a story, but avoid the meaningful digressions that will pay off chapters later. This book engages them, and every little wandering off the main narrative pays off later in the book. There are no loose ends. Too many bad writers think overdescription is a mark of good writing, but a good description is not determined by length, but by what is described, how, and what is left to the imagination. The perfect example is the titular tree, the Tree Of Heaven, whose species is unknown, as is its real appearance.
The book has often been mocked over the years for what I call its pre-Oprah Oprah book status- being a ‘coming of age tale about a girl’. But, it goes far beyond the typical Oprah book in ‘realizing’ its world. There are no expected tropes, no tidy solutions, and the things that evolve out of the character’s characters is perfectly natural. There is no force feeding of plot here. The book has also been taken to task over being ‘angry’ over the injustices of the poor, or merely being a social screed. These are baseless charges by people with their own agendas to wield. This is one of those books that simply defies a simplistic and pat definition of what it’s about. It is a slice of life, one that many folk lived, and with mere change of locale and some particulars, still do live. It is vivid in the most original sense of the word. It is full of sentiment, but not schmaltz. Only the truly closedminded would not be able to admit that this book soars far above those calumnies.
First off, it is not a coming of age tale, although Francie does come of age. Were that all it was we would not get so intimately involved with nearly a dozen other characters- even Francie’s wacky Uncle Flittman, who loses his mind after he’s kicked in the head by his horse. There certainly is no anger, rather a love of the oppressed and overlooked, although not in any way romanticized. Although I despise the PC way many bad artists try to claim their crap is art because it’s truthful, this is what they actually mean about truthful art. There is a great deal of social truth in the tale, but that’s not why it’s great. It’s how that truth is conveyed that makes the work great. So called truth is just that.
This is artistic truth that serves the art first. A good example of that comes in a scene where Francie decides to become a writer after being told to write down stories rather than tell lies. A good example of a fictive truth comes between Francie and her mother- in Francie’s knowing that her mother favored her brother Neeley, but makes peace with it, as she figures that he may be more loved, but she is more needed, which suits her as well. The social themes that are struck also transcend time- such as the treatment Aunt Sissy and a neighborhood girl get for their sexual indiscretions, and Francie’s ambivalence over her inability to separate herself from the people that mock them, until she does. Another theme is how far more mature and trusted children were. Francie is more like a young adult, from the time her bother Neeley is born, than a child. As a child she learns to hondle, or bargain, for day old bread, soup bones, and the like, as well as enjoy the simplest of pleasures, as well as empathize with others- even those ‘above her station’, such as a rude doctor who speaks of the dirty poor children who come in for vaccinations as if they were not in front of him in his office, until Francie gently rebukes his callousness.
These are just a few of the dozens of memorable incidents that pepper this book to living, especially Francie’s progress from introversion to assertiveness, and the role her family played on that development. And the description is not merely the straight-forward sort that paints a picture, but the oblique sort where the reactions of characters to those things say as much about them as any description could- be it the shit of horses, the tang of strong coffee grounds, or the sizzle of lard, or the sting of the needles of a Christmas tree Francie and Neeley win one Christmas Eve. Many of the ‘incidents’ alone could be great short stories. That Smith effortlessly coheres them into an overarching narrative is only further proof of the greatness of the work.
Yet, as much as the book is about Francie and the people she knows the book is mostly about place. It is not titled Francie Nolan Grows Up, but A Tree Grows In Brooklyn for a reason. Brooklyn is paramount, and not just any Brooklyn, but the remembered Brooklyn. Francie just its most notable resident at that time. The priority is carving a niche in the reader’s mind of a time and place, and Francie and her clan are the best tools to illuminate that niche.
Yet, the characters are so wonderfully drawn that one does not necessarily recognize their subservience to place. Johnny Nolan is a dissipated man, but Francie’s artistic gifts come from him, as well her mother’s steeliness. Katie Nolan is not a saint, though, as she does favor Neeley, never encourages Francie, and does not attune herself to Francie like Johnny does. Yet, Francie is lucky to have gotten the best of both parents whereas Neeley seems to not have been as fortunate. Francie, unlike Frankie McCourt, does not revel in her poverty. This is her life, the only one she knows, and it’s as good as any other, to her. Francie is also a supreme pragmatist- from her recognition of what sort of work best suits her temperament to her well thought out agnosticism.
The book ends with Katie Nolan accepting a marriage proposal from a retired police sergeant and widower who has long been enamored with her. He offers to adopt Francie’s youngest sister Annie Laurie and to send Neeley and Francie to college. Francie readies to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan. As she stops past her old apartment building she sees the cut down but still growing Tree Of Heaven resprouting in the tenement yard. She sees a small girl named Florrie Wendy, for whom the tree will also come to represent something, just as it must have represented something to her older neighbor girl Flossie Gaddis before her. That all three girls have names that start with F is not coincidental. That the tree that is chosen as the titular tree is a nondescript tree is all the more apt. It is, along with Melville’s white whale, one of the greatest metaphors in fiction. Yet, even as the book ends the reader wants to know more of what will happen in Francie’s life, even though none doubts she will perdure.
I am eager to read other of Smith’s novels, to see if this was merely part of a continuum, or some great work that rose far beyond any other in her oeuvre. The scenes she so deftly set in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn are indelible, and even if her other works are not on par, this book alone is one of those near-miraculous things that justifies the 99.9% of bad arts being out there. Now, back to the crap!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 4/05 Hackwriters website.]
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