Book Review Of Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Valerie Raleigh Yow
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/6/08
“And without true modesty, I am a world famous writer. A hundred years after I’m dead, people will still be reading, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”’
--Betty Smith in a letter to her granddaughter
Although a hundred years has not passed since Betty Smith’s death in January of 1972, as of yet she seems to have been right in her assessment. With more than 35 years since her death, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has elevated into the rankings as one of the greatest classics of all time. And this is the first published biography ever written about Smith, which I have the pleasure of reviewing. Just to give a little background, it took me several years to finally getting around to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, mainly because of its faulty reputation of being a “young girl’s novel” or being too “excessively sentimental”. Ironically, it has much in common with my experience with the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life—a film that also took me years to finally sit down and watch because I had fallen into the trap of believing that it too was mere “corn”. Yet these assessments couldn’t have been more inaccurate when thinking of these two works. It wasn’t until I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that I had to wonder why no biography had yet been written (or at least published) about the author of such a great novel, and the reason was probably due to the book’s flawed reputation as well as the mislabeling of Betty Smith as a mere “woman’s writer”.
But with time, all this is changing. I highly recommend this first and as of yet, only published biography to those who have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for it is well known that the book is based on Smith’s real life experiences in poor working class Brooklyn. Those who came away from the novel desperately wanting to know what happened to Smith in her later years, well now is your chance. Valerie Raleigh Yow covers from Smith’s birth to her death all in a narrative style that reads more like a story and successfully avoids falling into “dryness” by not overloading the reader with mere facts and dates.
The book covers Smith’s early Brooklyn years, addressing some of the similarities and differences between Smith’s real life and that of the novel. We learn of her ambivalent feelings she has towards her mother and the closer connection she feels for her father, and how her mother would often become annoyed with the young Betty for “asking too many questions” when really the young child only wanted her mother to talk to her. Just as in the novel, Betty does move away to a better life, only in real life she then moved to Michigan with her husband George, became a mother, and it was then when she began taking college courses, yet not for credit, since she did not have a high school diploma. (This part of Smith’s life is portrayed in her last novel Joy in the Morning).
The biography also addresses her early struggles as a writer, her interest in becoming a playwright and her eventual writing of the famous novel, which did not occur until she was in her 40s. After its publication, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became a worldwide success, selling millions of copies and eventually made into a film. I came to learn how many revisions Smith actually performed on her novels. Raleigh Yow speaks about Smith’s original ending of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which would have ended at her father’s death and with Francie and her brother both denouncing their belief in God. I was surprised at this since it is difficult to imagine the book ending in such an abrupt manner and so soon. Thankfully, Smith went on to write another 300 pages.
Then with her publication came money, fame, success, and future novels, as well as her struggling relationships with men (she married three times) and her personal distain for women. Ironically, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was passed up for the Pulitzer Prize, and instead Martin Flavin’s Journey in the Dark won. Now, I admit that I’ve not read that book but given that the title is very trite and there is virtually nothing on Amazon.com about the book—my inkling is that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the better work. (Yet, just like with ‘Tree’ and the Frank Capra film, I can’t claim this definitively since I’ve not read it so I’m still open to being proven wrong). My only point is to show that prizes in the long run don’t matter.
As her years went on, Smith published Tomorrow Will Be Better, which received mediocre reviews, and then went on to writing Maggie-Now and Joy in the Morning. In addition, she diligently worked on her plays, some which landed her success and many that did not. Smith eventually died of pneumonia, for she had been suffering dementia for a few years and eventually had to be put into professional care. (There is a scene in the book where Smith is unable to spell the word “is” properly, having to ask her granddaughter if the word is spelled “ise,” “is,” or “ize.”) The book discusses how Smith spent her last days staring off into space, not eating, and thus was too weak to fight off the pneumonia, which caused her to die at the age 75.
Valerie Raleigh Yow’s biography also contains a long list of source notes, excerpts from Smith’s letters, as well as new photos of Smith from young to old. Betty Smith is engaging, informative and highly readable. If you are stumbling upon this review, allow me to recommend Smith’s novel first—and then following that, this biography. Anyone else familiar with Smith’s work will most likely need little persuading.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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