Cynthia decided to choose her next book from the top 100 novels featured in PBS’ recent initiative, the Great American Read. She has not read Outlander, but after scanning that novel’s online reviews, she decided to pass, thinking this novel may not be appropriate for many high school students.
Instead she chose Betty Smith’s novel about a girl growing up in poverty in pre-World War I Brooklyn. Cynthia found it quite interesting in the context of her fall and early winter reading.
As previously posted, Cynthia read Crazy Rich Asians and The Great Gatsby during the autumn, and posted her thoughts on those novels here. She also read Gary Shteyngart’s adult novel Lake Success, in part because many of her students are heading to careers in finance.
For Cynthia, it was refreshing to read a novel that was not about conspicuous consumption.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides a stark contrast
Smith’s characters include Francie Nolan, the novel’s central figure, and her mother Katie. Katie grapples with extreme poverty in creative ways, inventing games of exploration to distract her children from days without food. She also permits them one indulgence every day.
Francie and her brother Neely don’t like to drink the coffee, but they love the smell, and even more they love the ritual of being allowed to pour the coffee down the drain, wasting something intentionally every day.
For that is Katie’s definition of real wealth: the ability to waste something, the ability to pour coffee down the drain.
A coming-of-age novel
Generally, we really like coming-of-age novels for teens and young adults. It helps to read stories about others’ struggles and to know that one is not alone in the often-challenging journey to adulthood.
But a warning about this novel. Though it was first published in 1943, some of the events in the novel are adult in nature and fairly graphic, especially for that time period. A sexual predator attacks Francie in the hallway. Child brides tremble in the face of brutal husbands. Promiscuity is on display and understood.
So, we think this novel has merit and worth for the right teens at the right time in their development. Parents, this one is your call.
Smith writes in a way to paint a detailed picture of Francie’s world in the Brooklyn tenements. Her language is expressive. And Cynthia found that Smith’s writing delivered a good balance between imagery and action. Too much imagery feels boring, especially for today’s teens in their ‘always on’ environments. But too much action would have left the reader without a strong sense of time and place. Smith does not make this mistake, and paints a compelling picture of poverty in turn-of-the-century New York.
Also, Smith’s central character is an avid reader, and eventually finds a job and earns her way out of the tenements through reading. Smith writes about Francie’s earliest reading days:
From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood….
On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.
Cynthia read and enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as her thirty-second novel from the Great American Read.
A welcome change in perspective.