Betty Smith hit a home run with her debut novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which sold over a million copies. What it’s selling is nostalgia. A version of the American Dream most immigrants would be familiar. For many cold rooms and childish hunger would be within living memory. They’d be reading about versions of themselves. Irish town, Italian town, German town, Jew town were you got Jew bread, rye bread. A place were the narrator, thirteen-year-old Francie could sit on the fire-escape of a third-floor brownstone tenement and dare to dream of betterment.
Public schooling which was free, but mandatory up until the age of thirteen. But 3000 school pupils crowded into school houses designed to take a 1000, with ten toilets for all. Here’s the dream dressed up in figurative language.
‘…the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people. ‘…No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.’
A coming-of-age novel that is set between 1901 and the America’s entry into the first world war in 1917. Staging posts are set out in a stolen Gideon Bible. January 1901, seventeen-year-old Katherine (Kate) Rommely marries the love or her live, twenty-year-old John Nolan. She’s of German extraction and he’s Irish. He works as a waiter, a singing waiter and, of course, he’s a drunk that’s often out of work.
Francie Nolan (the omniscient narrator) is born in December 1901. Most readers would guess it’s loosely based on Betty Smith’s own life. Thus you have Francie sitting on the stoop and reading, reading, reading. A book a day, beginning with the letter A in the public library, where the librarian has no time for children. Never looks at Francie. In contrast, her mother, Kate, who wants her and her brother to get on, has them reading a page a night from The Bible and the Collected Work of Shakespeare. Kate’s mum and dad came from German and remained illiterate. Education is the answer to getting on in the new world. But she delays Francie starting school, until her brother, who is a year younger is eligible. She reasons, rightly, that way they can watch each other’s backs. But it is Francie that is the little mother.
Kate’s sister Sissy is also illiterate, but never without a job or a man. At twelve she’s been described as womanly enough to attract the attention of a twenty-year-old man. By the time she’s fourteen, she’s married to a firemen. He’s early twenties. All her beaus are madly in love with her. For ease of reference (it’s meant to be funny) all her husbands, she calls ‘John’, flirts endlessly and commits bigamy in a number of ways. None of which really matter. Because she’s got the clichéd heart of gold. Everyone loves Sissy, and Sissy loves kids. The only problem is she keeps losing them. Ten neonate deaths in a row. But she’s a trier. Keeps at it. And of course, she succeeds.
Sex is everywhere and nowhere. The teachers who need to remain twisted spinster to keep their jobs. The beautiful teenage girl on the street corner pushing her bastard of a baby. Only for her to be stoned by other married mothers and horse shit flung at her and hitting the baby for daring to walk without shame and her head held high. The man who takes waste metal from the kids and strokes Francie’s face to the men who grope her on trams at peak rush hour when she’s older. Sissy says she should be flattered, but should also carry a hair pin.
Then there is the sex pest that kills and rapes children. There’s little doubt this did happen. It happened in Glasgow’s old and new tenements. But here it’s ludicrous. Kate shooting him with a borrowed gun. And Francie getting her leg scrubbed with carbolic acid where the paedophile murder’s penis had touched her. Ironically, the latter sounds truer because it is so ridiculous.
The omniscient narrator often gets caught up in her own knowing and the writing becomes clunky and overwritten. A school teacher, for example, who refuses to give her assignments an A-grade she deserves because she writes about poverty. The teacher’s backstory and who really gives a fuck? Then there’s the doctor who inoculates kids before they can become registered for school. He’s a Harvard graduate. We don’t need to know that. He favours eugenics and thinks dirty kids like Francie and her six-year-old brother Cornelius (Neeley) should be sterilised and the country immunised against such poverty. Fair enough. Those were the prevalent views, especially regarding Jewish children. But a generation before that it was the Italians and the Irish. Chinese were even regarded as human. But here they’re only to pick up the laundry. And Brooklyn has no blacks.
But Smith, in showing and not telling, insists on telling the reader even more. We get the backstory of the nurse. She’s Protestant and worked her way up and into a good job after working all day and studying at night school. Francie reasons she should be on their side. Few seven-year-old kids, bar the baby Jesus, are able to make mental leaps of that nature. The Protestant nurse’s reasoning (which we are told) is more mundane. She’s in love with the Harvard graduate. Of course she is, of course.
Love comes to the fore when Francie is fifteen, going on fifty. She falls for the wrong man for wrong reasons that might be the right reasons. Her mother, after all, was married at seventeen and a widow by her mid-thirties. There’s a war on. Anything could happen and often does. Read on.