I can’t tell you how many times I’ve frantically searched my house for my paperback copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I had emphatically recommended it to a friend. My mother said she would loan it to her colleague. I needed it for a high school book report. Every time I found it in the same place: under a stack of books on my kitchen island, right in the center of the house.
Somewhere between the time when I first read the book five years ago and now, that spot on the kitchen island became the permanent spot for the novel. It’s as if I can’t bear to let it out of my sight every time I reread it, or as if the book can’t tear itself away from the countertop. It’s always in the center of everything, out of sight and out of mind, co-existing until someone from the periphery has the sudden urge to pick it back up again.
I first read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” when I was in middle school, a time that I still identify as one of the nastiest stages in adolescence. I, like most other middle-schoolers, was struggling to keep up with the norms of the rest of my class and spent most of the day gossiping with my friends. Being cool was the only important thing, and if you weren’t cool, what were you, really? It was a time of transition, vulnerability and confusion.
A worn copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ended up in my hands one muggy summer day. The cover shows a young girl wearing a blue dress and blue headband, sitting precariously on a window ledge and reading a book balanced on her lap. Her short brown hair is pushed away from her face and the bold paint strokes of a tree trunk are visible behind her. Looking at the cover, I could identify with her. She didn’t seem to fit in, but she seemed happy being by herself with a book in her hands. A bookworm myself, I was curious enough to open the novel.
What struck me first, and angered me later, was the spontaneity of the characters. Francie, daughter of Irish immigrants living in the slums of Brooklyn in the early 1900s, possessed the broken nature of a child who’s been taught everything the wrong way. Francie learned patience from her father Johnny, an alcoholic who wouldn’t return home most nights, but would shower his children with love and gifts whenever he did. She learned responsibility from years of taking care of her younger brother Neely when her mother Katie was trying to scrape together a living, and years later when taking care of an unexpected addition to the family. Selling metal collected on the streets as a young girl made her cautious and wary.
It’s hard to relate to this cast of unlikely characters as a girl from a middle class suburb of Detroit. In my mind, Johnny was a terrible father, putting up a facade of loving his family while stealing their hard-earned pennies for drinks at the pub. When he said things like, “I am not a happy man … I never wanted a family,” to Francie, my heart hurt. Francie was a heroine, but she was so advanced for her age that I couldn’t see myself in her shoes.
Rereading the book years later, I realized that this anger at the characters is exactly what makes the book so appealing. Betty Smith makes you uncomfortable and gets you riled up until eventually you start feeling for the most unlikely people. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is about the harsh realities of immigrant struggle in the 20th century, but Smith writes about these obstacles in a way that everyone can relate to. The characters are raw and vulnerable, but so is the text itself.
Looking back, I think this vulnerability was the reason why “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” became my drug. There’s something about the story of the Nolan family that seems far-fetched, yet entirely possible to sympathize with. It’s as necessary a read for a middle school girl as it is a middle-aged adult. You’ll laugh, cry and be humbled all at the same time. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” has earned its spot on my kitchen island for two reasons: So much of my life revolved around it when I was young and so much still does.