Rating : 10/10
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is one of those classics that everyone ought to read. The coming of age story of Francie Nolan and her family who lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the 1900s, this book is inspired by author Betty Smith's own childhood. Which is very evident when you read the book, because, one of the most stunning things about this book is its innate realism and honesty.
This is an epic tale of a poor family and the trials and tribulations they go through as they face life. There is room for a lot of tragedy, but the strong undercurrent of hope, hard work and optimism is unmistakable. Betty Smith creates a fantastic world, so real, so intricate and so unforgettable. Indeed, 50 pages into this long book and you're already feeling part of the Nolan family and you're eager to see how they fight their way through life.
To put it simply, Betty Smith writes like a dream. She has a knack of analyzing emotional angles and relationships in such deceptively easy, simple words. I would read just about anything she writes, not just because of her witty style, but because of her ability to include just enough detail to fascinate the reader yet not create an overload of unnecessary information. Her take on societal norms and idiosyncrasies are wonderful and seem so natural and never forced.
The best part about this classic is definitely its characters and their development. It is a remarkable achievement to create and chronicle some of the most vivid, memorable characters ever. Francie, her brother Neeley, father Johnnie Nolan, mother Katie and two aunts Sissy and Evy soon seem like people you know very well and you begin to care about them so much. Francie especially is a pleasure to read, though I loved the strong, almost unshakable will of her mother Katie and her loving yet flawed father Johnnie. After all, isn't that the true greatness of a book? When the reader is enthralled, captivated and pulled into a world whose inhabitants and environment they care about.
The book has a lot of lessons to teach, but does so in an elegant, matter of fact way without being preachy. Poverty is never easy and Betty Smith doesn't romanticise poverty, she humanises it through her unforgettable characters. Sample this quote:
'The lady talked as Francie backed awkwardly to her seat. She said: 'You've all seen an example of the true Christmas spirit. Little Mary is a very rich little girl and received many beautiful dolls for Christmas. But she was not selfish. She wanted to make some poor little Mary, who is not as fortunate as herself, happy. So she gave the doll to that poor little girl who is named Mary, too.'
Francie's eyes smarted with hot tears. 'Why can't they,' she thought bitterly, 'just give away the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich? Why couldn't they just give it away without all the talking about it?''
Smith takes you on a trip down memory lane because a lot of things that Francie and her family go through along the years are things we all know. She makes you so involved with the characters that you shed tears for them. Regardless of the immense tragedies that you read about in this book, you come away with a sense of hope, not loss.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is exactly what every good book ought to be: engaging, beautiful, emotional and unforgettable. It is also the kind of book you will go back to all the time, because it has something to share with you at every point of your life. Don't deny yourself the wonderful journey that this book offers!