Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith, 1943
512 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2008

It's been a year since my friend Nan suggested Marley and Me.

This time she mentioned that she'd just given A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to her youngest daughter. Her older girls, now fully grown, oohed and aahed, recalling it as one of their all-time favorites. Really, I teared up.

That tender display of nostalgia got me to thinking about the book, a beloved classic....

Set in 1912-1918, the story follows 12-year-old Francie Nolan and her close-knit, loving family (a singular literary event in itself.) as they struggle to pull themselves up from poverty.Smith's prose is open and fluid, commencing with what is surely one of the most charming openings of any novel:

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

What saves the book from tipping over into the saccharine is Smith's sharp-eyed perceptions that strike home with stunning regularity. There's also her humor—at times Dickensian: the librarian who detests children, a horse who practices exquisite revenge on his surly driver, and an aunt who convinces her husband to adopt a newborn by insisting she'd really been pregnant all along—and he believes her!

This is a coming of age story. But rather than a single traumatic event pushing a character over the threshold into adulthood, here is a gradual blossoming into maturity. More than anything the book is a celebration of life—the ability to find joy despite hardship and tragedy.

Book clubs might use A Tree to delve into childhood memories—including the books we read long ago and (like this one) still treasure.

See our Reading Guide for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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