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The International Writers Magazine: Review

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
ISBN: 0-06-073626-7 Harper, 1943
493 pp.
Walt Bertelsen
Burning the Ugliness: It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see

BettySmith

Coming of age is all about change.  A young person goes through great physical change.  But the path to maturity must also involve gaining the internal resources to understand and deal with life.  How are we to think about other people?   How do we decide what’s important and valuable? What makes right and wrong?  Why is there suffering?  Then there is beauty and love.  Ah, love!  And truth: what is truth?  When I was a kid, whatever my dad said was the truth.  But I learned that, as we grow, those protective walls of sureness get shaken, small cracks appear, and we realize that others don’t see things quite the same.  In college and the working world, new ideas and values can bring greater cracks.  In my own journey—and in the book I’m about to describe—one thing makes the difference in whether or not a young person can get beyond self-absorption, look at the brutal disillusion and ugliness of life and see its true beauty in spite of the overwhelming urge to escape or deny it.  “It’s not what you look at that matters,” as Thoreau observed, “it’s what you see.” The thing that enables such sight for most is a foundation of loving relationship in the formative period of life, in the family and especially with the father.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about truth and beauty.  It is an account of how loving relationship played out in the life of a young girl, Francie Nolan, growing up poor before World War I.  Betty Smith began writing this book as her own story, but changed it into the “fictional” classic we have today.  As such, her book is so much more than just an honest look at herself—it has become a book of truth. The story of Francie is “deeply and indelibly true,” writes Anna Quinlan in the foreword.  “Honesty,” Quinlan explains, “is casting bright light on your own experience; truth is casting it on the experience of all.” Truth is the reason we identify with her characters even decades removed from the world that Francie Nolan inhabited.  Truth draws us into the story as participants rather than mere observers.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reflects the genuine commonality of the human experience and the beauty therein—in spite of, and highlighted by, daily hardship and suffering.

The reigning metaphor, the tree, represents Francie’s life.  There is an actual tree that seems to thrive and grow strong in the areas around the Brooklyn tenements.  Similarly, Francie grows and thrives in the cramped confines of the tenement districts that were a hallmark of the poverty and hard life faced by a second generation immigrant family during the era.  The tree is also a metaphor for the persistent presence of the poor everywhere. “You will always have the poor among you,” so Jesus once said, and we are reminded of this, right to the close of the book, when Francie is leaving for college.  She is looking out her window and sees another young girl, another “Francie,” sitting on a fire escape across the way, absorbed in a book and eating penny candy, just as an eleven-year-old Francie once sat discovering the wondrous world beyond her neighborhood.  The episode, as I’m sure Betty Smith intended, leaves life “to be continued.”

Francie’s life is mostly filled with those things that the “better” sort would regard with distaste and see in shades of ugly rather than beauty.  Her father (Johnny Nolan) is a dreamer who can’t hold a steady job, an alcoholic who early succumbs to illness when Francie is twelve.  Her mother (Katie Nolan), is a hard-working, steely woman who has lost any sense of affection and generally prefers Francie’s one-year-younger brother Neely.  Francie’s aunt, Sissy, is a woman who always had a man, (she always calls them “John”), whose husbands are left without benefit of divorce; a woman who wants children to love, but whose babies are all stillborn until she finally obtains a baby by less-than-honorable means.

Underneath the daily desperate ugliness of tenement life, a foundation of loving relationship is built into Francie’s life, particularly by her dad, by Sissy, and by her brother.  (Her mother’s example adds steely self-reliance to this foundation).  Her n’er-do-well father’s life is devoted to showering Francie with love and affection.  He delights in her.  She adores him.  A vivid picture of this is provided to us when Francie is receiving inoculations for school.  They get infected, and when her “papa” gets home late that night, he tears apart his only tee-shirt to provide a bandage.  He tenderly washes her arm, and makes up a story to help her feel better. Francie’s memory here (she was seven or eight at the time) is of how the “cloth smelled of Johnny, warm and cigarish….it smelled of protection and love.”  Sissy is the wild and crazy one of the family.  To others, her life seems devoted only to sex and gaining the attention of men.  In reality, she longs to pour out her love, and Francie is the beneficiary of her devotion and thoughtfulness.  It is Sissy, two years after Johnny Nolan’s death, who accompanies Francie to her graduation.  After the ceremonies, Francie finds a bouquet of roses on her school desk, along with a card written by her father.  Johnny had anticipated this day and arranged with Sissy to buy the flowers and give her the card.   In typical younger brother fashion, Neely is alternately a pain and a friend.  In the end, as the one who shares much of Francie’s life, he becomes another reminder—as the spitting image and voice of his singing father—of the continuity of life.

Anna Quinlan pointed out that this book is more than honest, it is truth.  But it is even more than that.  Others look at the same truth—but not see it the same.  Francie runs into this reality in a conversation with (read: lecture from) her teacher, Miss Garnder.  Francie had been writing stories, good stories about beautiful places, trees and flowers and blue sky—but they were not true, and not representing anything that was true in Francie’s world.   Francie decides, instead, to write stories about her dead papa, their life and love, the poverty they struggled with, and his drinking.  But Miss Garnder looks at these new stories—however true—and sees ugliness.  “Beauty is truth; truth beauty,” she intones, quoting a line out of context from a Keats poem.  Miss Garnder proceeds to instruct Francie that the make-believe world she had painted in her earlier compositions is the true beauty.  She tells the now fourteen-year-old Francie to burn the stories about her father.  It is a moment that crystallizes for Francie what is true and right and beautiful: it is not the world (of denial) her teacher sees; it is, rather, the love that lives on no matter its less-than-pretty environment.  Francie goes home and burns, instead, the made-up compositions.  Watching them go up in smoke, she says simply, “I’m burning the ugliness.” Pilate’s famous query to Jesus, “What is truth?” is answered for Francie in the beauty of a papa who loves her despite his imperfections.  She could never trade her life for the life of those “better off” who have it handed to them on a platter

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is non-stop amazing.  It provides a picture painted in rich colors and varied detail—and in poetic prose.  Betty Smith’s writing gifts included the ability to tell a story as captured by the eyes of a character at whatever age they were in that story.  This takes the reader back, to see things at that same age, and provides a reminder of people, places, and discoveries that all children make.  I literally thought of people and scenes that I had not remembered since my own boyhood.  I grew up in Eagle Rock (a suburb of Los Angeles) during the 1950s and 60s.  I was back there again, looking at shopkeepers and store owners.  I was there, running my hand over items in a store, full of awe, and wondering what to buy now that I had discovered the power in those few coins in my hand.  I even share an experience with Francie (and likely, Betty Smith) of seeing my father in his coffin when I was barely thirteen.  I was staring intently, and I, like Francie, was sure I saw his hand move.

Then there was the introduction to the world of books.  I remember, too, discovering the library, the Librarian’s desk, and, like Francie, thinking I surely must read everything on every shelf.  But there was also something greatly disquieting about reliving this particular discovery with her.  Francie is free to learn about life outside her poverty through books, to dream and to taste something that exists elsewhere.  She is fulfilling what is understood by her grandmother—and most immigrants—to be the “American dream”: the chance to be free from those who owned “the land,” to be what a person could not be in the home country, and to provide a better opportunity for their children, limited only by ability and drive. (In the 1960s the dream morphed into the money-chasing, status-seeking version we have today).  The “Granma,” Mary Rommely, though illiterate, knows that one key to discovering the possibilities of the American dream is reading.  Granma Rommely tells Katie, when she is expecting Francie, to read a bit of the Bible and Shakespeare to her child each day.  “You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.” The wisdom in this mindset—coming from a woman who would never know the joy of reading, caused me to reflect deeply and sadly upon a tragedy that I saw played out every year that I taught in a poor area—the disturbing fact that the young people there could not read the kinds of books that would give them a view of the possibilities beyond the boundaries of the hood.

One last vignette:  It highlights the fate of those who perhaps miss out on life, who never get beyond their world of self safety, who never know the truth Francie knows.  Katie has a third child, which Johnny never lives to see.  As Katie lies screaming in pain during labor, the whole tenement is listening, among them the Tynmore spinsters.  Maggie says: 'That’s why I didn’t marry Harvey….I was afraid of that.  So afraid.’ 
‘I don’t know,’ Miss Lizzzie said.  ‘Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and to scream out, and even to suffer that terrible pain, than just to be…safe.’  She waited until the next scream died away.  ‘At least she knows she’s living.’
  Miss Maggie had no answer.

The shadow of Johnny Nolan and his devotion to Francie hangs over the book— in a good way.  That devotion enables Francie to reflect on her family and her life as a thing of beauty.  That’s what is truth.  The poor will always be with us, but perhaps the greatest tragedy of life is that love is not.  The Scriptural injunction to “love your neighbor” is missing from too much of life.  John Lennon had it right (“all you need is love”).  Self still rules the earth.  It has removed much of the beauty of the trees and birds and sky.  It’s good that some have, and still do, look and see what is truth. 

© Walt Bertelsen, July, 2010

waltbert at verizon.net

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