A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Book Three

Dear Bookies:

Yesterday, December 15, would have been Francie Nolan’s 110th birthday. Oh, Francie, what would you think today of your beloved Williamsburg, where the old Sicilian bakery is now a comic-book shop? I wonder.

So much has happened in the course of Book Three that I can’t even do justice to it all, which makes me wish this book club (which I have come to love) was a teeny bit more like the obligation kind, where you can hash it all out over boxed wine and a bunch of pigs in blankets.

But on to the book. As my esteemed colleague (and fellow Bookie) Maura points out, Betty Smith does a masterful job of creating characters who live in the gray areas. Johnny, for instance, who redeemed himself for me somewhat when he figured out a way to get Francie into that nice new school, a decision that made all the difference for her, in spite of all those “love-starved,” “neurotic” teachers.

And speaking of those love-starved teachers, that brings me to what I think is the weakest aspect of this rich, complicated book. Betty can be pretty heavy-handed at times; for instance, when she makes sure we understand that the bitterest teachers were the ones from poor homes who wanted to “exorcise their own fearful background”; that the Harvard-man doctor who immunizes Francie and Neeley considers his Brooklyn practice “purgatory”; that the formerly poor nurse will be haunted in years to come “by the sorrow in the face of that starveling child.”

I think the book is most effective when she just sits back and lets events speak for themselves, like the “North Pole” game Katie plays with the kids when there isn’t enough to eat, or Francie’s diary passage in which we learn at the heartbreaking end that Katie has made her change every “drunk” to “sick.” Or when Johnny declares the only free country is where nothing is free: “We’ve got Democracy and that’s the best thing there is.”

Two places where my heart broke: After Francie’s graduation, when she finds the flowers on her desk with the note from Johnny. Is Sissy telling the truth about how Johnny gave her the money before he died, or is that her own “slight but instinctive coloring of the facts”? I’d rather think Johnny really did foresee his death and leave the money, that that imagination of his came through for him at the end.

The other: When Katie’s in labor and tells Francie she’s sorry she didn’t read any of her compositions before she burned them in the fire. In the thick of the crisis, they’re honest and intimate with each other in a way they’ve never been able to manage in the day-to-day—and then as soon as the trouble passes, strangers again. I would wager that something like that has happened to every one of us with someone in our lives—the smoke clears, and you wonder why you’re once again finding it so hard to just love each other and get on with it. That’s both truth and beauty, though Mrs. Garnder might not think so. (What kind of name is “Mrs. Garnder,” anyway? Do you think it’s an anagram of Betty Smith’s most hated sex-starved teacher?)

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to Mr. McGarrity, who just wants a lady he can talk to! I love that Book Two was full of ladies who let their lives be ruled by their physical appetites, and then we’ve got this poor schlub who wants nothing more than to talk about his day at work. Betty, you sly fox! I wish we’d been friends. In your honor, I’m going to do as Francie did on graduation day and make an impossible wish, a wish that I could make come true, and a wish for when I grow up.

If only everybody in this club could go around the table and share theirs. That’s when the boxed wine would come in handy, huh?

Till next week,