A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Books Four and Five

Dear Bookies,

I didn’t remember much of Books Four and Five from the time I read them at age 11. The first reading was all about the period details, like petticoats and Jewish rye. But this time around, I’d call Four and Five by far my favorite parts of the book. I do love seeing Francie (who’s still a kid! You forget it until someone offhandedly mentions it—by the end of the book she could be a middle-aged broad) beginning to
figure out adulthood. To the extent that it can be figured.

I felt so betrayed, as I am guessing some of you did too, when Katie decided Neeley would go on to high school, not Francie. But the anger and tenderness between them in that scene is what makes this book such a great mother-daughter love story. This could be the soft middle-aged broad in me, but I hope Katie and Francie are wrong when, at the end of that chapter, in their “secret hearts” they claim to know it’ll never be all right between them again. I think there are hints to come that they’ll come together and be closest as adults; to wit, that free and frank exchange after poor Francie’s been so brutally dumped by Lee. “There’s only once you love that way,” Katie tells her, which couldn’t be farther from the advice I think most of our mothers would have given us. (And is so at odds with the traditional romantic-comedy arc, which would have Francie slapping her forehead, coming to her senses, and realizing it was Ben who was meant for her, upstanding and studious Ben all along, standing in the street below her window with a boom box playing Peter Gabriel.)

True confession: I know I ragged on drunk-and-handsome Johnny, but like Francie, I was in love with Lee. And not just because he took her to the Automat, which has been a life-long dream of mine. (Why has nobody resurrected this magical phenomenon? Why doesn’t Williamsburg open some trendy farm-to-fork Automat with artisanal beet-and-marrow sandwiches?) If there’s a romantic trope that’s more catnippily compelling than the brave and forlorn soldier who was lonely all his life until he met you, then I have not in my long life encountered it. Speaking of soldiers, according to Carol Siri Johnson (again), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was part of a series of special Armed Services Editions issued to hundreds of thousands of soldiers overseas and was the first of those books to get a second printing. This gets me in the gut, all those guys on the other side of the world, pulling out those little pocket editions, conveniently sized for a knapsack. I just hope they didn’t get any bright ideas from Lee.

If I ever thought of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as just a tale about a girl who pulls herself up by the bootstraps and heads off to a brighter future, I don’t anymore. Because when Francie clips that headline about the war declaration so she can save it as memorabilia, what she’s doing is fixing herself in the present: Are her eyelashes even, are her stockings smooth? Instead of using that moment to project herself into some fantasy of what it will all be like, she just prays to feel something every minute of her life, to experience it while it’s happening. Wise, and so much harder than it sounds, and so much more compelling than getting the soldier in the end.

Francie turned out to be a real dame, didn’t she? I love the wisecracker she’s become when she goes to Cheap Charlie’s and tells him to let a kid win the doll she buys but not to call it Francie: “Not with the face that doll’s got.” She figured out a long time ago Cheap Charlie had rigged the game, but she puts down her own money because she wants some kid to win it even if she couldn’t. That, to me, was the moment when we saw Francie had believed, lost belief, and gotten it back again (though maybe in some compromised fashion). Again: growing up.

I am sorry this book is over! I have loved reading it with you. Now I’m going to go get my violet sachet powder so I can get ready for my date. I hope he’s a nice (non-engaged) soldier, and that there is chop suey.