Monday, May 12, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Finding and reading this wonderful old classic was pure joy. I'd seen the movie many years ago, but not read the book.

First published over 50 years ago, Betty Smith's poignant, honest novel created a big stir ... her frank writing about life's squalor was alarming to some of the more genteel society.

Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive. The opening line is this: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York”. Can you imagine that? Well, I guess the world was much different in the summer of 1912.

It's a simple story of a family in crisis. Johnny, the father, drinks too much and can't hold a job but is the light and life of the family. Katie, the mother, loves her family ferociously, but has been embittered by the strain that Johnny and their perpetual state of poverty places upon her. The story truly belongs to Francie and Neely, the two children, who survive by staying together, inventing stories and games for each other, and finding joy in their meager surroundings.

There is magic and heartbreak, heroics and cowardice, beauty and hideousness. It describes what it was like to be a poor child in Brooklyn in 1908.