A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was a book recommended to me by an American friend of mine who told me that it is a great classic of American children’s fiction, and one of her favourite books of all time. I only discovered Little House on the Prairie this year after years of avoiding it and absolutely loved it, so I decided, after some deliberation, to take a punt on this and trust her. I would have trusted her completely from the get go, except that my copy of the book claims to be as good as Angela’s Ashes on the cover. I loathed Angela’s Ashes, and consequently, this put me off reading it for a good few months.
I was a fool. I should have listened to her. It’s much, much, better than Angela’s Ashes, although it does have its sad moments. It tells the story of a young girl called Francie, who grows up with her brother Neely, in Brooklyn before the First World War. It is mostly told from Francie’s point of view, although there are sections where the author goes back in time to tell us Francie’s parents’ stories too.
It covers all of Francie’s childhood and up to the point where she finally becomes a working woman, just before 1920. It deals with what it’s like to grow up in poverty, and how to escape it, if you’re lucky enough to be given the chance. It paints an evocative picture of Francie’s life and also the neighbourhood in which she grows up. The author uses Francie as a focus, but spreads her net to tell the story of many other people, friends and relatives in the neighbourhood Francie lives in.
It has its moments of sentimentality, but what I particularly liked about this book was how clear eyed and mostly unsentimental it was. It doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like sex and childbirth and violence in the neighbourhood. It deals with racial prejudice and cultural prejudice and class issues. It looks at the way gender informs poverty and how much harder it was for girls to get free of it than boys. It is powerful and affecting and while it shows an at times brutal life, it also shows a life, a family and a community that Francie loves and is proud of. There are moments of joy as well as horror. There are moments of humour and brilliance and power. It’s not all about dirt and downtrodden people who drink themselves to death. Those things feature, but they’re not the point of the story and there’s none of that high Victorian style sentimentality that ruins many stories like these.
In some ways, Francie reminds me of Jo March from Alcott’s Little Women. I think it’s her strength of character, her stubbornness and her refusal to exist within the confines of what is expected of her. What’s nice in this book is that we see that Francie comes from a long line of women who were strong and smart and that in a ‘modern’ America, Francie and her mother are able to take this smartness and strength and better themselves in ways that her grandmother and those that came before her couldn’t.
I wish this book were more widely read in the UK. I think it would be a fantastic addition to high school library shelves everywhere and it deserves a much wider readership. Its subject matter means it’s only really suitable for teens, but it is an absolutely compelling read and I imagine you could absolutely hook readers who have grown up on a diet of Jacqueline Wilson books on this. It’s like Wilson, but better.