Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

My July book club selection was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,which I didn't realize was almost 500 pages when I alloted 10 days to read it. In the beginning I didn't get into this. I was impatient with so many details and found Betty Smith's off-hand racist comments offensive. I realize she wrote this in the 1940's but I wasn't able to let her off the hook. Luckily, there weren't many slurs, etc as the book progressed.

Smith's Francie Nolan and all her family did win me over as they struggle amidst poverty moving from one tenement to another. The characters were smart, witty, (often) diligent, kind and worthy of respect. They were drawn warts and all including Johnny, the idealistic, dreamer alcoholic father and Sissy, an aunt who went through men in a hurry. Sissy was one of my favorites. She couldn't read, but she did outsmart Francie's teacher when felt her niece needed someone in her corner. She posed as Francie's mother and confronts and fools a snobbish teacher who Sissy sized up immediately.

It was interesting to read as a sociological portrait of a culture with descriptions that I came to relish. For example, in Brooklyn they used to celebrate Thanksgiving as we do Halloween with kids dressing up and going to different stores begging for treats. Since kids were the did so much of the shopping ("Here's a nickel go to the store and get two loaves of bread) smart merchants catered to them (frugally) to win their loyalty. Smith provided so much insight into how people doctored up old bread and left overs to last days. I also loved how dignified the Nolans were, how they wouldn't accept charity and always found a way to survive.

Francie has interesting relationships with all her family members. It was fascinating to see how honest and open Katie (the mother) was about sex and boys when Francie was a young teen, how she didn't sugar coat romance, how she was always practical even when Francie broken hearted.

The story got more vital and witty as I went through it. It's really got everything: injustice, jealousy, endurance, murder, weddings, births, deaths, success and failure. When I started reading, it felt like a homework assignment. Now I'd definitely read more Betty Smith.

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