Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, 528 pages, a PBS top 100 book of The Great American Read, see: - /  Published in 1943 and semi-autobiographical.  Lexile 810, Recommended for grades 9-12 or ages 12 and up Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and will require student requests in order for purchases to be made.
The poet Donald Hall reminded us that, “Literature starts by being personal, but the deeper we go inside the more we become everybody.” 
Exploring how to approach this review of a favorite childhood read with something resembling objectivity, I turned to YouTube’s “One Man Book Club” aka Dan, who reviews family-style books. In his review, he asks, “At what point does a story transcend all others and become eternal? It’s not age, length, language, style…”  He goes on to suggest 6 factors that can determine a novel’s greatness: 1) a universal theme describing how humans behave, 2) so well written it begs to be read “over and over”, 3) defining a genre, 4) with a message that resonates as much today as whenever it was written, 5) a cast of characters that connect with readers, and 6) whose message is open to interpretation.  “It doesn’t tell you how to judge its characters.”  We agree that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of these immortal works.
Betty Smith initially wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir, but her editor encouraged her to write it, instead, as fiction. She followed his advice. The result is a story so authentic, it invites us to live with its characters and share in their lives.  There are no fantastic plot twists here, no mythical or mystical happenings--it is merely life, in its everything, presented as is: sometimes raw, sometimes funny, always heartfelt.  Let’s look at Dan’s criteria for a “transcendent” work:
   1) This novel is peopled with characters who are complex, yet immediately discerned;  we are soon completely ensconced in their world. Here is love, softening as time goes by, as love does. Here is loneliness but, just as often, a deeply craved solitude necessary for growth. Here there is good in people deemed bad by their neighbors, when kindness isn’t flaunted or advertised and flows from love. Here there is struggle, as we all struggle. Here nastiness begets nastiness, as we’ve all known from childhood. Above all, here there is family, for better or worse, even to growing up and going away. This novel is a composite of humanity but not a snapshot; it is more a slow unfolding of life’s experience. The tree of heaven, the ailanthus* of the title--a tree that predicts the degradation of neighborhoods and loves the poor, as Smith writes-- is a metaphor for life persisting against all odds, just as our protagonist’s mother, Katie, intuitively perceives it to be, almost from the beginning of the tale. When Katie gives birth to a weak, blue-tinged Francie, our future narrator, the neighbors cluck, “You’ll never raise that one, her color ain’t good. There is too many children on this earth already and no room for weak ones,” Katie claps back, insisting, “It’s not better to die:”
“Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating.  It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”
2) Because Betty Smith was writing her own experiences as Francie, the writing simply flows; she had to organize her history but not invent it. There’s nothing overwrought or artificial in her use of language. We hear accents she describes as markers of community. All of childhood’s misconceptions about sex, and all the sullied realities of adults, are limned here. A pervert grabs 11-year old Francie on her own dark staircase, instilling terror. Like many girls and women (as E. Jean Carroll has so successfully laid bare), she is frozen, unable to scream or move despite trying. That’s REAL. Dad Johnny had borrowed a gun to protect her but he’s not home, and when Katie sees, she takes it from under his pillow, walks awkwardly down the stairs with it under her apron, and shoots, leaving a burn hole in the apron. Moments later, she’s stunned to feel the gun is warm and nonsensically tosses it in her laundry water to prevent a fire. That rings true, too.
3) And genre? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is characterized as domestic fiction.  It is wholly and utterly, completely THAT.  If there had been no such genre before its publication, it would have been created for this book.
4) Does it resonate? Introduced to school at age 7, Francie suffers when the teacher treats all the dirty little poor kids like mongrels, refusing to give them bathroom time until Francie wets herself; the merchants’ children, however, can go whenever they like, and sit in the first rows. “Francie…learned more that first day than she realized. She learned of the class system of a great Democracy,”  Later, she finds herself a much better school and her dad pens a letter claiming she’s going to live with family at an address within the school’s jurisdiction. There, Francie begins to bloom. At one point, her teacher brings in a nickel pumpkin pie, 5 inches in diameter.  She asks who wants it, but the children are too proud to admit of any want.  Katie always refuses any proffered assistance, and Francie is well-trained. to refuse, but she’s never had pumpkin pie.  The offer is about to be withdrawn when Francie pipes up, saying she knows a poor family, so she gets the pie.  Now she’s told a lie. Riddled with guilt, she feels pumpkin tastes like soap. Still, and oh, don’t we all recall doing this? --Instead of coming clean, she embroiders the lie.  The pie fed two little girls, blonde with blue eyes, twins actually, who hadn’t eaten for 3 days, and it probably saved their lives!  Then she bursts into tears and says, “I ate it.”  Her teacher says yes, she was aware.  She then advises Francie to keep a diary for the truth, and then write stories that may not be, so she’ll know the difference.  Would we all had such teachers!
Katie is no saint, she loves only Neeley--a reality Francie realizes early; it steels Francie and so makes her more like Katie herself.  Francis and Neeley must be vaccinated against small pox before starting school.  Katie can’t stand to see Neeley hurt and so forces them to go to the clinic on their own--if someone can be spared, why shouldn’t it be her? She defies the habitual conceit of all-protective motherhood and protects herself, instead.  She warns them to wash up beforehand,  but they forget while making mud pies.  At the clinic, the Harvard-educated doctor, a blue blood merely biding his residency in this pitiful place, comments to his nurse about her being filthy, and Francie responds:
“My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.” …As the door closed, she heard the doctor’s surprised voice, “I had no idea she’d understand what I was saying.” The nurse had also come from poor streets--she still had the accent--but she feigned a higher status in lamenting right along with the doctor, which she would regret for the rest of her life: the price of pretension.
 5) A cast of characters that the reader can relate to:  I’ll leave you, dear reader, to explore them all.  Every character, no matter how inconsequential, is uniquely genuine.  Ofcr. McShane, an acquaintance dealing with Johnny's drunkenness  over years, while secretly longing for Katie, will become important much later. Even the junk collector has personality; later, Francie will guilt him into donating a real prize from the spinning wheel burdened with ancient toys never won.  And he’ll name the doll she donates to the cause “Francie” as she informs him HER baby sister will never show up at his place to sell collected junk, as she and Neeley had.
6) The book ends with Francie headed to Ann Arbor for college, wearing Ben Blake’s promise ring yet unsure whether she loves him, looking both forward and back through time:
“…[T]his tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down...this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it. Once more she looked at Florry Wendy reading on the fire escape. “Good-bye, Francie,” she whispered. She closed the window.”  Florry is Flossie and Ken’s daughter, the next generation; everything ties together.
What does “a message open to interpretation” mean, in this context? What you see is what you get; how you interpret it is entirely up to you.  You may laugh at Francie for wanting her leg cut off because the pervert’s penis incidentally touched it as he grabbed her neck, or you may feel her frozen horror as your own. You may consider her unwise for promising herself to a man she doesn’t quite love, or you may laud her choice as wise and safe. This novel simply embraces a gentle quality, an ode to the resiliency of life, that makes me feel better even in these turbulent times. I feel that I’m passing it on to you as a gift; I hope you and yours will cherish it as much as I do. 
Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to “become everybody.”
*The tree of heaven, or ailanthus altissima, native to Taiwan and middle China, was first planted in New York City in 1820 as a street tree because it needs very little to survive.  It is sometimes called the varnish tree, or the “stinking sumac.”  It has a distinctive, foul odor similar to varnish when its foliage or twigs are crushed--comparing it to varnish is actually quite generous. It feeds silkworm caterpillars which often drop on unsuspecting passersby; we have no idea why New York thought it beneficial to have trees that nourish silkworm caterpillars, as there was never any intention to harvest them for silk! It is deciduous and so, bare throughout the winter.  It has become noxiously invasive throughout most of the nation. (Way to go, New York! We can’t complain too much, though, as our state, California, did much worse by importing the Australian eucalyptus tree, which explodes in fires as its sap expands and seeps through cracks in the bark, & whose scent repulses many--although I love it as a crisp kind of clean.)