Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

I’m grateful to Emily for steering me towards this book after I reviewed Judy Blume’s children classics. I can see the appeal of this book for a teenager, because it’s a very realistic, detailed and emotional account of growing up under difficult circumstances in a Brooklyn tenement neighborhood in 1912. I found it interesting that it was not meant for youngsters originally.

I was afraid it would be a bit like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a book I don’t have good memories of because it was really soppy and dwelling on misery just for the sake of a good cry (in my opinion). There are comparisons: both deal with dire poverty, growing up between an alcoholic father and a courageous yet exhausted mother. But Betty Smith’ clear and pleasant writing describes squalor while remaining dignified and respectful.

Frankie Nolan, the young heroin, admires her father despite his being unable to keep a job. She learns to accept that her mother prefers her younger brother. She is able to see beauty and joy in her world, which is brimming with life and people, not stereotypes. The book is quite positive without being Pollyannaish. Poverty is not romanticized, or made into a moral tale. She’s full of respect and sympathy for the people she describes, of all walks of life, even by today’s standards, and she takes brave positions in social, political (pro-union), sexual and moral questions, without simplifying issues. The more I read, the more impressed I was about Frankie – and Betty Smith. But one can soon guess that they are one and only person, can’t we?

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