Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years. So I decided to read it. Then I saw how thick it was. I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them. Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous. Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre. All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it. I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.
What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century. They couldn’t vote. Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well. Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate. Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely. I’m certain there are other messages in this novel. Other lessons to be learned. Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book. As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare. These days that combination can get you into trouble.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God. When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story. Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating. I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone. I can’t image having that taken from me. Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God. Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all. Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing. Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft. For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read. It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.