Book review: "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn"

Posted by Bel. The time is 4:09pm here in Wellington, NZ.

Brooklyn is somewhere I associate more with the Beastie Boys, Mos Def and hipsters than anything else. To plunge into a novel set in the poverty stricken world of new immigrants living in turn-of-20th-century Brooklyn meant shedding a lot - no, all - of those connoations.

Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" brings this time period to life in an amazing way. It is so authentic, soaked in detail that make me think that it must be autobiographical (rather than researched in a finicky souless way). The actions and events are driven by the characters, with some now obscure references mentioned by them in a casual way that comes from it being their natural environment.

I get the feeling that I am not making much sense right now - so I'll give an example. At the opening of the book, our protagonist Francie is collecting scrap metal with her younger brother of a Saturday morning, as the few dimes gleamed from the exchange is their only spending money for the week. This is told without pity and without seeking sympathy, but instead revelling in the joy that you felt as a kid earning your own cash and then the equal torment of having to choose how to spend it.

For me, the book explored wonderfully some themes that have grown richer with time: gender roles in the home and the importance of education. Again, this is not done in a heavy handed way, but simply through the characters and how their lives progress due to the circumstances. Francie is determined to finish high school - to start high school even! The dynamics in the family, and the form her mother's support takes becomes engrossing.

I have just done some belated googling and discovered there is a film version directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden). Swoon!

As this is a ye olde book, I thought I'd better get a photo of the cover. It was a little harder to get our bookcase in the background though as we were moving at the time! Shame! However, I hope I get bonus points for managing to get Jeebus, Audrey Hepburn and a nerdy typography book in shot.

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