Monday, July 14, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-Betty Smith (and first book club meeting)

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books not only this year, but in the last several years! Published in 1943, this bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, is still popular today. Francie Nolan, her younger brother Neely, and her parents Katie and Johnny, live in the poor Brooklyn slum of Williamsburg. Though Katie works extremely hard, Johnny is an alcoholic and does not have steady work. Francie and Neely contribute what they can by collecting rags, metal scraps, and other odds and ends to be sold for pennies every Saturday. The family barely scrapes by, and occasionally must go without food. However, their story, mainly Francie's story, is not about poverty and despair. Instead, her story is about resourcefulness, family, determination, education, and hope.

Francie is a bit of a loner. She doesn't have many friends, but she spends most of her free time reading. She decides to read every book in the local library, from A to Z (except on Saturday, when she can read a book out of order). Once in school, Francie learns she has a gift for writing as well, and makes high grades on her compositions. Outside of her schooling, she learns many other valuable life lessons from her mother--such as how to bargain with the butcher, or the importance of saving money. Most of the time, Francie seems much older than she is. Probably like many children living in this situation, her childhood is cut short. When she is only 14, she finds a job in the city, and is making the majority of the family's money. However, she still finds a way to continue her education.

I can understand why this book is still so widely read 65 years after it was written. There are so many interesting and original characters! Even though the characters were flawed, it was easy to see the good as well as the bad. Johnny loved his children and wife, and they knew he loved them, even if he had a drinking problem. Aunt Sissy adored Francie and Neely and brought them small gifts or sweets (even when she herself had very little to give), but she was looked down upon by other women because of the way she acted with men. Francie's mother Katie favored Neely over Francie, but she also pushed Francie to be independent and taught her how to get what she wants by working hard. It was very enjoyable to read about the development of all of the characters throughout the 17 year span of the novel. I was sorry when it ended, and I want to know what happened next with the family!

This was the first book for a new book club I'm in with some girls from work. We decided to meet once a month, and each month one person will "host." The host chooses the book, the meeting place, and facilitates the discussion if necessary. I volunteered to go first, so this was my month. Though I believe I liked this book the most, the others enjoyed it as well. I think the general consensus was that it was a bit on the lengthy side, but the story was worth the time. Some of the topics we discussed were: the strength of the female characters, the bits of humor speckled throughout the story, how we felt about of the characters, why Betty Smith wrote about this time period, and what we think would happen in Francie's future. I would say this is a good book for a book club, though there probably won't be much heated debate or too much varying opinions--so a good choice for a first meeting! I wasn't sure how this first meeting would go, but now I'm really exited about being in a real book club!

Read other reviews of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn here:
Trish's Reading Nook
An Adventure in Reading
So Many Books, So Little Time

Date Completed: July 6, 2008
# of Pages: 483


Heather J. said...

congrats on you first meeting success! I love this book - we did it in my club a year or so ago. Pretty much everyone liked it, some more than others. Best of luck with your NEXT book. :)

Jeane said...

I've always been fond of this book. I must have owned three or four different copies of it so far- because each one had some flaw (a torn cover, pages missing, etc) so I kept looking for a better copy. Now I've got one that includes Maggie Now, which I haven't read it. I'll be sure to read Tree Grows in Brooklyn at the same time again, just to revisit it!

Trish said...

Ha ha, your review makes me want to read the book again! Great review. :) And I agree that the topic and type of book made this book a great choice for the first book club meeting!

Katherine said...

I LOVE this book! Thanks for the reminder. It's been a while since my last re-read.

Tiffany Norris said...

Oh, this book is one of my absolute favorites. This review makes me want to reread it! Glad you enjoyed it as well, and good luck with the book club! In my experience, those are worth the time and effort as well. :)

Laura said...

~Heather--I am really happy to be in a real book club! I hope it is as successful as yours! :)

~Jeane--I would like to read more of Betty Smith's writing as well. I'm on the lookout for Maggie Now and Joy in the Morning.

~Trish--yay for a book club! I'm really looking forward to next month's book!

~Katherine--I think I could re-read this book as well, and now, I don't re-read very often!

~Tiffany--I'm hoping the book club will continue to be as fun as the first meeting!

Bookfool said...

Excellent review! I still haven't gotten to this one, but you've made me want to run out and grab a copy, right now. Gotta wait, darn it, but I enjoyed your review. Good luck with the book club!

Charley said...

I just loved this book. The title alone conjurs up such a lovely image for me. I thought Francie was a wonderful protagonist, and while I agree that the story is lengthy, I believe that it is well worth the time. It's definitely one I'll re-read at some point in my life.