A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This book is absolutely enchanting.  It spoke to me on so many levels that I ripped through 500 pages in just 5 days of commuting.  It also feels apt to have been prompted to read it by seeing it on the subway.

Betty Wehner Smith was born in 1896 and her heroine,  Francie Nolan, is a few years younger than her author, making her only a half dozen years older than my own grandmother, who also grew up Irish and working class.  Like Francie, she and her siblings left school to work and she was a young woman in the war years.  Reading the novel made me feel connected to my grandmother, to the clothes she wore (with hats! and gloves!), to the shows and the dances she enjoyed, to the worries and hopes she had.

And then there are the ways Francie reminds me of myself – as a voracious reader, as a big sister to a little brother, as an internal monologist.  And now, living in Brooklyn, just like Francie, I can marvel at the multiple cultures I traipse through each day, perfect my technique for weaving through the Manhattan crowds and revel in the beauty of a rooftop view of the bridges.

The writing style of the novel is a charming blend of Francie’s voice and an omniscient narrator’s gentle and plainspoken statements.  In another author’s hands, it could easily be didactic or faux-naive, but somehow it rings true.  The only thing I don’t get is assigning this book to kids – I could never had appreciated the book’s emotional depth until I had some of my own.

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