Tuesday, May 29, 2007

a tree grows in Brooklyn

I've always wanted to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I've always wanted to read it, because so many friends have recommended it to me. Not because I knew at all what it was about. But you know me and books. I have such a long to-read list, I never end up reading anything at all. Finally, this weekend at the beach, my friend Courtney threw it in my lap. I had no choice but to sit down and start reading. I had no idea what I was in for...

Based on the title alone, I would never have guessed that the book is about an 11 year old girl, Francie, coming of age in the slums of New York. In today's context, the title has a much different meaning than it did a hundred years ago, when Williamsburg represented the rough tenement district of New York. Nowadays, Brooklyn is a great place to live (if you like the city). With that in mind, the image of a tree growing in Brooklyn holds a lot more meaning. It's inherently hopeful, against all odds. Only sixty pages in, I can say that the novel is one of the most significant I've ever read. And I've read a lot. It's full of imagery, history, and personal insight. And to boot, good story-telling too! I love this little girl Francie. She has much to teach me.

I'm also quite surprised I never had to read the book in my American Lit class. The one girl-coming-of-age-in-the-slums-of-New-York novel that I did have to read was Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a 60-page realist novel by Stephen Crane. Realist maybe, but not real. How could a man in the late 1890s successfully write such a personal and intense story about a little girl and her sexual growth in a way that has any real womanly insight? Needless to say, I felt no connection to it and would have done well to skip it all together and read Tree instead. Maybe you would too.

That said, I still have to finish the book and might feel completely different by the end. But I'm willing to bed that the ending is not so dire, morbid, and utterly useless as the Crane version. Let's hope so.

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