Okay, first, an open letter to my mother:
I’m a grown woman now, and I’m ready to hear the truth. Did you tear Book Two out of my childhood copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Because I don’t remember anything about sex-crazed “hoyden” Sissy, married at 14. Or how Mary Rommely “humbly submitted” to her husband’s “brutal love.” Or Sissy’s open-heart, open-corset ministry to her detoxing brother-in-law. I can’t say I blame you. I spent many loving childhood hours watching The Guiding Light with my grandmother, and as a result I had a lot of uncomfortable questions for both of you—like what “pregnant” was, or what a man meant when he asked whether a baby was his—and you probably just weren’t ready to go to those places yet.
Your daughter, older and wiser
Man alive! Like some of you, I can hardly believe this is now considered a young adult novel. This stuff never happened in the Little House in the Big Woods.
I expected hardship and resilience to be major themes in this book, but I certainly hadn’t expected all the sex. For the Rommely women, the company of men means trouble every time, doesn’t it? Oh, the age-old story of what happens to a lady who’s a fool for men who make music!
I actually think it’s pretty subversive, the way Betty Smith allows her women characters—even the “witch” at the fish market, long ago left pregnant by her no-good boyfriend—to be motivated purely by attraction and desire, or “fierce love hunger,” as Mary Rommely would call it. Sadly, it’s a tender trap, especially for the Rommelys, who might have been better off if they’d been more focused on practical matters. If only Katie hadn’t squandered her creative energies on the fantasy of musical Johnny Nolan! We get the first hint of the cynic (or stoic?) she’ll become when her mother advises her to cultivate imagination in her children as an escape hatch from difficult circumstances, and Katie tells her it’s just a recipe for disappointment.
That sets wise old Mary up for what’s probably going to be my favorite passage in the book: “To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, that is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch.”
If there are two sentences that better describe growing up, I haven’t heard them. (This is also, I think, a pretty square description of what happens when you turn 40, which may be why I picked all the coming-of-age novels as choices for book club this month. Not that you asked.)
A few things I’m wondering:
Betty Smith unsubtly points out numerous times that in this world, the women are the source of strength, emotional and physical. Do you find this a tribute to the fairer sex—or honestly kind of a drag?
Can you handle Sissy? Do you think she’s a gutsy broad, a red-gartered tramp, or a red-gartered tramp with a heart of gold? And what do you think of the scene between her and Johnny: compassion from one “big but mistaken heart” to another, or is Sissy what Dr. Phil would call an enabler? Though Betty Smith the narrator will pass judgment on unjust circumstances (as we’re going to see in the next book), I think Betty Smith the writer rarely passes judgment on her characters, which is what makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn fascinating for me.
I love that Betty Smith pulled back in this second book to tell the courtship story of Francie’s parents, which is part and parcel of who she is and will become. The next book is more Francie’s story. Unfortunately she’s really going to get the chance to fatten her emotions, and ours too.
But that’s good for us. As Mama Mary would say, “The secret lies in the reading.”
Till next week,