Tuesday, July 21, 2009
This months book club read was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. We have club members from afar -- read along, then discuss via e-mail.
Susan Kelly is one such member, and gave such a good overview of the book, I decided to give into my laziness and use her comments as my own.
Here are her thoughts:
I didn't realize the book was almost 500 pages till Jack sent that email. Yikes I thought. In the beginning I didn't get into this. I was impatient with all the description early on and so many details, and found Betty Smith's racist language offensive. I realize she wrote this in the 1940's but I wasn't able to let her off the hook easily. That kind of language has been greatly eliminated from polite conversation so when you hear derogatory names for Jewish people, etc. it is shocking. 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 so even the severely alcoholic father's tremors are mentioned but no one gets away with overemphasizing his addiction. The family knew he wasn't a saint, but they insisted on the truth in their own understanding of their father.
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 poses as Francie's mother and confronts and fools a snobbish teacher who Sissy sized up immediately. Calling out to that police officer was inspired.
It was interesting to read as a sociological portrait of a neighborhood, getting a respectful, honest look at how people cope with poverty and how they just lived back then. I was surprised by how they used to celebrate Thanksgiving as we do Halloween with kids dressing up and going to different stores begging for treats. Since kids 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. She made that interesting. She almost made the poverty seem fun or adventurous. I had to remind myself that these really were hard times.
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 was broken hearted. It was amazing how fast these kids grew up, how prematurely they assumed responsibility.
The story got more vital and witty as I went through it. It's really got everything: courage, heart, injustice, jealousy, endurance, murder, weddings, births, deaths, success and failure. Now I'd definitely read more Betty Smith.