A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith Book with bird and greenery

This site includes affiliate links, meaning: Abibliophobe Books may earn commissions from Amazon or other companies for qualifying purchases, at no added expense to you.

A memoir style book billed as a novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn gives readers a loving, and at times gritty, depiction of life among the poor in pre-World War One Brooklyn.  It’s well worth reading, both for its glimpse into mores of its time and insights in to how living there, and being poor, impacts its many characters.  The inner lives of even secondary characters are delineated with loving care, as well as Francies’ (the protagonist).  Interesting to me is that Francies’ brother Cornelius, known as “Neely,” is depicted largely externally.  We know some of what he says and does, and we know how Francie and Katie (their mother) feel about him.  His internal musings are not on display.

Francie is a person who wants to experience life, expending some effort to hold on to both all that is large and all that is small in her life.  She notices when other people aren’t noticing people and things, such as the librarian that she yearns to form a connection with.  At the same time, there is much in her life that causes her to feel anxious. The result is that her life seems almost like a dream to her when she thinks about it.  She begins to realize that things and people are not necessarily the way she thought.   As a lonely child, Francie has time to dream, think, and wonder.  Growing up is interesting but challenging.  This is a memorable narrative, filled with longing and wonder.

My initial reading of this book was at too young an age, and I didn’t really appreciate it.  It was one of my mom’s favorite books.  We have a family story that goes with it.  My mom wanted to name one of my brothers “Cornelius.”  He escaped that fate because my father flat-out refused.  When I was three or four years old an alley cat adopted us (maybe because I was feeding it, ha ha!)  He became my pet and when my mom suggested “Cornelius” for his name I was sold!  That’s the only Cornelius she ever got!

A second reading of this book, as an adult, opened my eyes to a possible explanation of why my mom loved this book so much.  So many of the views and events were like a mirror of my mother’s childhood!  For the first time I understood that my mom, and my father, had been poor growing up! It was a detail I hadn’t really grabbed hold of as I listened to stories, usually humorous, from their childhoods.  In my mom’s case, many of her traits, outlooks, and longings are reminiscent of Francies’.  This was a book, and a character, my mother really related to.  I felt that it gave me insight into how she perceived and perceives things.

A story my father sometimes told was how he went to the beach with his friends (in California) and they body surfed or used whatever they had on hand to ride the waves.  I voiced that it was too bad they didn’t have boogie boards.  He said, “We were all poor, so it didn’t matter.”  

There may have been days Francie and Neely would have agreed.

Best Regards,

This Abibliophobe