I stopped reading after I began high school. Up until last week, it'd been three years since I felt a book spine between my fingers according to my own interests and not because of my English teachers. Then, a couple days ago, with all of the biology projects, college applications, and math assignments mounting to a towering heap of ineffable responsibility and anxiety, I grabbed a book I bought a few years back but never read. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn", it said on the cover, by "Betty Smith". The color palette was tawny and not any sort of eye-catching, but they were earthy and nostalgic of an old playground, of a childhood friend. With the 6 o'clock news in the background and my legs entwined in an over-washed cotton blanket, I opened "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and began my adventure.
Adventure: that's what all books should be. They don't need to involve lots of action nor any outrageous characters, but they should provide an escape into a world unlike your own. Betty Smith wrote her semi-autobiographical book eighty years ago and it was her reality. But decades later, the adventure of pre-WWI children living vivaciously even as everything was dingy and everybody was poor became my escape.
Smith's writing is direct. She doesn't sugarcoat the poverty of the main family, the Nolans, and she doesn't allot happy endings for every character. Each character lived their lives as it was; no positive coincidence swooped in and saved the day. They lived, as first-generation immigrants lived at that time, thinking about the next meal and the next paycheck. Smith was not merciful: some died tragically, others died for unfair reasons. Why, then, is it deemed a children's book? Children's books aren't supposed to be bleak or cover the harshness of life in such graphic and unforgiving detail. The answer lies in the main character, Francie.
Francie Nolan has no illusions about her life. She and her brother, Neeley, scavenge for small recyclables among garbage to trade for a few cents. Their mother is a maid with work-thickened hands and their father is a singing waiter with a penchant for alcohol. The four of them make the quintessential family of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They kept a tin can nailed in a closet as a makeshift bank, but it never filled up much. Francie tried, to no avail, for her mother to like her more, but she just always favored Neeley more. Life was never fair for the Nolans, nor for the relatives and neighbors of the family. Everybody lost love and people, but one thing was strong as steel: their grit. From sunrise to sunset, the people of Williamsburg worked to feed their families and stay alive, and even if the sun did not rise that day, the people of Williamsburg still would've gotten up and worked for a couple more cents, never stopping to ruefully contemplate their poverty. This grit follows Francie through life: as a little girl, adoring of her alcoholic, depressed father, to a young woman who finds love at the wrong time. Throughout it all, Francie looks to her imagination for resolve and comfort, living in her own world of writing and book while sitting on the fire escape overlooking her street. The title fits the story like a glove: Francie and every person in the town are just like trees growing through the cracks of Brooklyn, unlikely, disfigured, but resilient all the same.
I finished the book within two days. I would've finished it even faster if not my pauses at the ends of anecdotes, which is something I recommend every reader of this book should partake. Each story holds a philosophical truth in it that is relevant to the rich or to the poor. There are lessons on surviving to live (there's a difference!), supporting a family for the only fact that you are blood, and falling hard onto the pavement and getting up again, no matter how long it takes. Meaningfully written backgrounds of each character remind you of a person in your own life, and that reminded me that people are the same in the most basic manners. Yet at the same time, each character is unique in their decisions and a single decision could have affected the rest of their lives; we see the results of those decisions, bleak or happy. I read the chapters as the person themselves, understanding their thinking processes. That's the beauty of Smith's writing. She wrote in depth in the perspective of many, so we follow the adventures of many. Adventures indeed, for don't we all read to get a taste of another's life? Betty Smith gives you the perfect ammunition to do so, with not only the characterizations pulling you in, but the imagery about the freshly brewed coffee and the tone about a group of sisters who fights for a common goal. Nostalgia is an emotion you're certain to dabble in, especially for the child inside who's been stifled for too long.
No single review can fully encapsulate of the beauty of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". It's peculiar, how I went from not reading at all for three years to finishing a book in two days. It's just that resounding- and it gets better every time you reread it. You find new lessons, subtly weaved intricacies, and powerful perspectives that a single reading can't grasp. Francie is the kid we all were, and we could become one again through reading her story. We should all tap into the child-like reservoir sometimes, just to remind ourselves that no matter what happens, we always have our imagination.