A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Book One

Hi, Bookies!

I hope Book One flew by for you the way it did for me. It’s easy to see why A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was such a phenomenal best-seller when it was published in 1943—3 million copies sold in the first two years. According to professor Carol Siri Johnson, the publisher literally could not print enough copies because it ran out of paper due to wartime restrictions. (Fortunately, a deal was struck with another publisher that had reserves on hand.)

All this hoopla for a story of an impoverished 11-year-old girl from Brooklyn. Can you imagine that happening today? If you’re a compulsive Googler, as I am, you may already know that Betty Smith was born in 1896 to German immigrants in Williamsburg and slyly told reporters that this novel full of autobiographical detail was the truth not as it was but “as it should have been.” (Well played, Betty.)

I need to get a few salient points right out of the way: First, I want to say how enjoyable it is to read a book knowing you’re going to discuss it later. I made margin notes, which I haven’t done since college. Do you guys underline and write in your books? I love it when I borrow books from other people and they’ve done this. Second, how masterful is the detail in that whole shopping sequence with Francie and Neeley, and remarkable that the kids have such freedom, but also such responsibility? Third, how fabulous is it that “singing waiter” used to be such a common profession that it doesn’t even merit an explanation in these pages? And, finally, how awesome do Flossie Gaddis’s dance costumes sound, with that “sky-blue sheath” and “cerise underskirt”?

Which brings me to one thing that really got me about these chapters: In a story about people who have so little, such loving attention is paid to material objects. Johnny and Francie are so proud of his pearl studs that the Nolans never pawn no matter how bad things get, the wing collar that his old girlfriend gave him. It’s hard to imagine Katie would want to look at her husband wearing that thing every day unless it would have been an immense hardship to replace. The biggest extravagance she can afford her family is when Francie’s allowed to pour a little coffee down the drain—just so they can remind themselves that they have enough to waste. That’s one of my favorite details because it reveals the immense power that stuff assumes when you don’t have the means to get it. Money gives Francie the power to walk the aisles of the nickel-and-dime store, it gives Johnny the power to walk into that restaurant and feel like somebody (though by the time he walks out he’ll probably be too drunk to remember who he is anyway).

Speaking of Johnny and Francie, what do you think of their relationship from what we’ve seen so far? As I’ve written here, I haven’t read this book in 30 years, but I vaguely remember that as a kid I thought Francie was lucky that her dad would confide in her in such a grown-up way. Now that I am a grown-up (older than Johnny, that’s for sure), I think she’s not so lucky at all. There’s a sweetness in the way she irons his apron and he promises to take her down south “where the cotton blossoms blow,” but for me that handsome-dreamer shtick is already wearing thin. How harshly does Betty Smith want me to judge Johnny at this point? “Everyone loved Johnny Nolan,” she tells us, and I believe she does herself. Then on the next page Johnny’s yammering about betting money (that he doesn’t have, of course) on the horses, and a couple of pages later we’re reading about all the things Katie can make out of stale bread because there’s nothing else to eat. But Francie loves him, and we’re starting to love Francie. (How much do I admire her plan to work her way through every book in the library? I tried that, by the way, when I was her age, and you know how far I got? James Agee.)

I’m going to confess that I’m reading ahead so I’ll be able to get a jump on the third book (the long one), so let me give a little spoiler and say that we’re about to find out how Johnny and Katie, so tenderly talking with each other at the close of Book One, got together. Let’s just say the Rommely women have a weakness for hot guys who make music, and it’s going to be their downfall. In the margin, I wrote, “Ladies, just get a radio!”

Until next week,