Wednesday, 14 April 2010

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Francie, the young protagonist of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is a wonderful character because she is a real little girl. Her circumstances may not be the same as the readers' (unless of course you live in turn of the 20th century Brooklyn), but her inner life and fears are so easy to relate to.

She is not an orphan, nor do her parents seem to be mere shadowy background figures in their child's thrilling, magical adventures. She has a very vividly painted home life.

We know what she eats, (stale bread dumplings),exactly what her house looks like,( a corridor) and we see her being scolded by her mother and comforted by her beloved yet useless father. We also see clearly that she is her father's favourite, but that her mother prefers her brother, Neely.

Instead of travelling through time, Francie looks at an old man's toe sticking out of a broken shoe and is hit by the idea of mortality. She does not find treasure, but knows the joys of peeling open a lychee and making a 'potsy' for hopscotch with a run-over tin can. She peers down the ventilation shaft in her bedroom and imagines that it's Purgatory and knows no greater felicity than sitting out on her fire escape on a sunny day with five cents worth of pink and white wafers and a brand new library book.

'As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed. About four o'clock, the flats in the tenement across from Francie's yard came to life. Through the leaves, she looked into the uncurtained windows and saw growlers being rushed out and returned overflowing with cool foaming beer. Kids ran in and out, going to and returning from the butchers, the grocer's and the baker's. Women came in with bulky hock-shop bundles. The man's Sunday suit was home again. On Monday, it would go back to the pawnbroker's for another week.'

Francie does not encounter any evil witches or monsters, just cruel neighbourhood kids, bitter teachers and the terrifying child killer who made my blood run cold 17 years ago, when I first read the book, and now, still.

This is a book that can be revisited countless times as the reader ages and there is always more to find and enjoy. This is partly because Francie's story is traced from before her conception until her early adulthood and partly because this book is not only a coming of age story, but an excellent social history of immigrant life in early 20th century New York. The adult characters are just as complex and sympathetic as Francie's and they swim into a clearer focus as the reader ages. It is rich and therefore endlessly rewarding.

It is a pity that the old Heinemann edition seems not only to be out of print but off the face of the planet. It's cover image was this Julia Margaret Cameron image (see below) which led me to her photographic work. The image above is taken from the film poster. Unusually for a book so beloved, the film adaptation is very satisfying and heartbreaking.

Where did I first hear about this profoundly moving life companion of a book? A character from the series 1990s hit series The Babysitter's Club had to do a book report on it. The glittering burn of culture is a wonderful thing!

No comments:

Post a Comment