I need to be reminded periodically of what a masterful writer’s attention to detail, character portrayal, and replication of human kindnesses and cruelties accomplishes. Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is an excellent example.
This book is about poor people in Brooklyn living against the odds before and during World War I. It is especially about strong women – the Rommely women – Mary, the grandmother; Mary’s three daughters Sissy, Katie, and Evy; and most particularly granddaughter Francie: all “made out of thin invisible steel.” It is also about their husbands and neighbors, shopkeepers and school children, teachers and co-workers. It is a compelling, detailed slice of life as the author must have experienced it.
Francie Nolan, the book’s main character, born in 1902, is eleven in the novel’s first chapter. Living in poverty in Brooklyn with her brother Neeley (a year younger than she), her truthful, resolute, practical mother Katie, and her empathetic, unrealistic, drunkard father Johnny, she exhibits already what Katie’s uneducated but wise mother Mary Rommely had advised Katie about raising her two children. “’The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. … It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.’” Francie has imagination. When Katie pointed out to her mother that the child, growing up, would find out things for herself, her mother responded, “’It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe … fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. … Do not forget that suffering is good, too. It makes a person rich in character.’” Early on, Francie, shunned by girls her own age, fantasizes about the lives of people she observes from the fire escape landing outside her window, lives in the stories of the library books she reads, and plays games with imaginary friends. She loves her imperfect father deeply. Over the course of five years she experiences nastiness, cruelty, grieves, yet perseveres. At the book’s end she is rich in character.
These scenes in particular moved me.
When Francie had been seven and Neeley six, Katie had sent them to the nearby public health center to be vaccinated. Katie had needed to work that day and Johnny had been at the waiters union hall hoping to be emplouyed that night. Told by older boys that his arm would be cut off at the health center, Neeley had been terrified. To distract him before leaving for the center, Francie had taken him out into the yard to make mud pies. They had left for the center just before they were scheduled to report, their arms covered with mud. “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap,’” the doctor had said to the nurse assisting him. The doctor had then speculated “how that kind of people could survive; that it would be a better world if they were all sterilized and couldn’t breed any more.” After she had received her vaccination, Francie, terribly hurt, had fired back. “’My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me. … Besides, it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.’”
Francie’s teacher at the neighborhood school was also scornful of the poor. The spinster principal was nasty and brutal. Francie, turned nine, had her father fake their address to permit her to transfer to a better school. That November her new class participated in a Thanksgiving Day ceremony. Four chosen girls held symbols of the Thanksgiving feast. One symbol was a saucer-sized pumpkin pie. The teacher threw away the other symbols after the ceremony but not the pie, offering it to anyone who wanted to take it home. “Thirty mouths watered; thirty hands itched to go up into the air, but no one moved. … All were too proud to accept charitable food.” When the teacher was about to throw away the pie, Francie raised her hand. She explained she wanted to give the pie to “a very poor family.” The following Monday the teacher asked Francie about how the family had enjoyed the pie. Francie expanded on her lie by saying that there were twin girls in the family, they had not eaten for three days, and a doctor had said that they would have died but for the pie. Caught in her lie, Francie confessed. She pleaded not to be punished. The teacher answered, “’I’ll not punish you for having an imagination.’” She explained the difference between a lie and a story. The incident inspired Francie to channel her tendency to exaggerate events into writing stories.
A year later Francie told a whopping lie. She and Neeley attended a Christmas celebration conducted for the poor of all faiths by a Protestant organization. At the end of the celebration an exquisitely dressed, lovely girl named Mary came on stage carrying a foot-high beautiful doll. The woman that had accompanied the little girl announced, “’Mary wants to give the doll to some poor little girl in the audience who is named Mary. … Is there any poor little girl in the audience named Mary?’” Struck dumb by the adjective “poor,” no Mary spoke up. But at the last moment Francie did. As she walked back up the aisle carrying the doll, “the girls leaned towards her and whispered hissingly, ‘Beggar, beggar, beggar.’ … They were as poor as she but they had something she lacked – pride.”
Francie was extremely proud of her seventh grade composition printed in the school magazine at the close of the school year. Eager to meet her father in the street to show him the published composition, she saw a girl named Joanna come out of her flat pushing a baby carriage. Joanna, who was seventeen, wasn’t married. Several housewives on the sidewalk gasped as Joanna strolled past them. Katie and Johnny had talked about Joanna. At the end of their conversation Katie had said to Francie, “’Let Joanna be a lesson to you.’” Seeing her, Francie wondered how Joanna was a lesson. She was friendly. She wanted everybody else to be friendly. She smiled at the ladies on the street. They frowned. She smiled at nearby children. Some of them smiled back. Francie, believing she probably wasn’t supposed to, did not smile back. Joanna continued to walk up and down the sidewalk. The ladies became more outraged. One woman eventually spoke. “’Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’” Joanna answered back. “’Get off the street, you whore,’” the woman demanded. A verbal fight ensured. The women began to throw stones. One struck the baby on the forehead. Joanna carried the baby into her flat, leaving the carriage on the sidewalk. The women disappeared. Little boys began to play with the carriage. Francie wheeled the carriage back to the front door of Joanna’s flat. She placed her story on the carriage cushion as recompense for not having smiled. She decided later that the lesson she had learned was that she hated women. “She feared them for their devious ways, she mistrusted their instincts. She began to hate them for this disloyalty and their cruelty to each other.”
Francie’s father died when she was fourteen. Thereafter, instead of writing about the beauty of birds and trees she wrote four little stories about Johnny to show that despite his shortcomings he had been “a good father and kindly man.” Her new English teacher marked her compositions “C,” not what Francie was accustomed to, “A.” Afterward, she and Francie had a private conversation. The teacher wanted Francie to write about beauty and truth as she had before. “’Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects. … Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s enough work for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness. … Now that we’ve talked things out, I’m sure you’ll stop writing these sordid little stories.’” She advised Francie to burn her four compositions in her stove when she got home. Instead, Francie burned all her “A” compositions. She told herself, “I never saw a poplar and I read somewhere about the sky arching and I never saw those flowers except in a seed catalogue. I got A’s because I was a good liar. … I am burning ugliness. I am burning ugliness.”
Two years later Francie met a twenty-one year old soldier about to be shipped off to the war in Europe. They spent an evening together and kissed. They met the next evening and the soldier asked Francie to have sex with him and to marry him if he came back from the war. They did not engage in sex but she accepted his proposal. He went back home to Pennsylvania the next day to see his mother before being shipped out. Several days later Francie received a letter from the soldier’s mother informing her that the woman’s son had married his fiancée. Francie needed her mother to tell her hard truths.
Told what had happened, having read the letter, Katie recognized she could no longer stand between her children and heartache.
“’Say something,’ demanded Francie.
“’What can I say?’
“’Say that I’m young – that I’ll get over it. Go ahead and say it. Go ahead and lie,’” Francie said bitterly.
“’I know that’s what people say – you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. … Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him.’
“’Mother, he asked me to be with him for the night. Should I have gone? … Don’t make up a lie, Mother. Tell me the truth.’ …
“’There are two truths,’ said Katie finally. ‘As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger. … Your whole life might have been ruined. … But as a woman …’ she hesitated. ‘I will tell you … It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.’”
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is such a bittersweet, beautiful book. Betty Smith assures us that amid the misery and ugliness of poverty honest, empathetic people rich in character do exist. We need to know that. We need to retain hope for the human race.