|A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
Original 1943 Dust Jacket
Most of the time while reading, I felt as though I was reviewing the early life my mother and her two older sisters. At pretty much the same time as in the novel, they were children of a widow, living in an immigrant neighborhood in pretty extreme poverty -- though they grew up in St.Louis, not Brooklyn. I'm pretty sure they felt a lot of kinship with the character of Francie Nolan, Betty Smith's now-enduring creation. They occasionally mentioned the book, in fact, though I don't remember any details of what they said. And they remembered the same changes happening in their world as in the novel: from gaslight to electric, from mostly horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles, from live performances to moving pictures, from wearing long hair to a stylish bob, and so on.
It seems kind of silly to review a book that's been popular for so long, so I'll say only this: the writing still seems fresh, the characters still seem alive, and the pain of being a poor and unfavored child remains with us. To me, Francie is just wonderful! Betty Smith offers her readers vivid descriptions of teachers who were cruel to because the children they taught were poor and mainly immigrants, of the way Francie's mother was raising her children on virtually no money, of the agony of an addicted father who eventually died of alcoholism, and of many other issues that speak as loudly today as they did in 1943.
One example of Francie's mother's resourcefulness: she could make a whole week of meals from a few loaves of unsold bread bought from the bakery when the food shops returned them --
"She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat. Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat." (pp. 41-42).
In fact, there's even more that Francie's mama made from stale bread. And these meals were good and provided almost enough to eat. Later, things got even more difficult. Mama had to invent a game, pretending that they were explorers at the North Pole, trapped with almost no food -- because they had no money even for stale bread and a few scraps. And thus they had to make do with whatever was in the house: near starvation. Francie quickly sees a catch:
“When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason. Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?" (p. 215).
In short, it's a book full of wonderful observations about life in another time, but with so much that still resonates, I think. Francie's father could exist right now -- painfully, the huge issue in his life (beyond his alcoholism), was obtaining fair wages for his work as a waiter. This hasn't gotten any better in well over 100 years. He put it this way:
“Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big, they said, that they could sell the waiting concession. Then I joined the Union. Your mother shouldn’t begrudge the dues. The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p. 30).
Finally, I love the optimism the ending: Francie's hopeful departure for the college experience she always craved -- especially because she heads for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan!
|"And Francie had never had a doll except a two-inch one that cost a nickel." (p. 197)
In this photo you can see my mother’s nickel dolls from around 1914.
They were dressed by her sisters, and are around 3 inches tall.
Review © 2022 mae sander.