Thursday, April 10, 2008

Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Recommended Age: 14+

Betty Smith's classic debut novel was written in the 1940s and made into a film that was nominated for several Oscars (James Dunn won for Best Actor). It tells the story of a dirt-poor family in a neighborhood called Williamsburg, in Brooklyn NY, in the first two decades of the 20th century. It's a richly descriptive window into a forgotten time and a way of life most of us Americans today can't even imagine, let alone remember. It's also a very human novel about a girl's coming of age and the family relationships that bind people together.

I think it's remarkable that probably the two sweetest and most sympathetic characters are notorious sinners, who in another author's hands would be portrayed as monsters or morons or at least in a judgmental fashion, but here they are accepted and loved unconditionally - by the author and by the characters whose lives they touch.

The first character of which I speak - another one of those whose fate kept me up more than one night and made a deep impression on my heart - was the role for which James Dunn won his Oscar. Namely, Johnny Nolan, the father in the central family unit. Johnny is a bright, dashing, handsome, youthful Irish-American with blond curls and a slender build and a beautiful singing voice and a love of music and dancing, who captures the heart of a tiny, pretty Austrian-American girl named Katie. They marry very young and start having kids sooner than Johnny hoped (a girl named Francie and then a boy named Nealey), and the poor weak fellow turns to drink. Okay, he's merry, he's charming, he's full of love for his wife and children; but he's absolutely useless because he can't hold a steady job and he's slowly but surely drinking himself to death. The relationship between Johnny and his daughter Francie, the main character of the book (probably an autobiographical deptiction of Betty Smith), is one of the profoundest and sweetest love stories I've ever read. Naturally, it's also very very sad... but more than just sad, and not pointlessly so.

The other character is Francie's Aunt Sissy, Katie's older sister, who is once described very appropriately as "highly sexed." She gets an early start (twelve or so) and carries on a colorful career working in a condom factory, committing bigamy and serial adultery, and having ten stillborn children through no fault of her own. For all her seemingly low moral character, Sissy is again a very gentle, strong, wise, and trustworthy person in matters of the family, and her adventures form the most interesting "subplot" in the novel.

I daren't give away much more about the story, except that I believe that if you take the trouble to read it, you will be greatly rewarded. It is a book to love, and though ahead of its time in terms of "frank sexuality" it isn't at all obscene (by today's standards, anyway). It will make you think again about how blessed you are and what sort of hardships people somewhere in the world, even today, may have to endure - and the spirit by which they overcome. Funny, heartbreaking, uplifting, endearing... you'll find something to cherish in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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