A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: An Appreciation

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Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!
~ Betty Smith

“Stop by the library and grab a movie for this weekend.” It’s a simple request I’ve heard from my wife countless times, but I always take it up as a challenge: Can I find something we’ll both enjoy? We have limited time for movie-watching, so I like to make it count.

Unless I have something in mind already, I usually skip the “New Releases,” and instead head directly to the librarian’s re-shelving cart. I suppose it’s a “wiki” approach to winnowing the field, perusing what others in my neighborhood have been checking out, and it often leads to some happy discoveries. It’s how we originally came across the six-hour BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice,” now a family institution, along with another classic favorites like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945).

tumblr_my6ero4jWv1roqtzko2_1280-600x375I remember our first viewing of “Tree,” and marveling that I’d never come across it before. It’s the story of Francie Nolan and her impoverished family struggling to survive in Brooklyn after the turn of the twentieth century, and how flourishing can still be nurtured in the midst of tremendous strife. Director Elia Kazan managed to shape a powerful, beautiful, believable narrative about struggle, sin, and salvation – truly magnificent. Every character – every character, both amiable and repellent – somehow captures the viewer’s attention and sympathy. It’s a remarkable achievement.

The funny thing, though, is that my love of the movie never drove me to seek out its inspiration, the novel by Betty Smith, and I only did so at the urging of my daughter Margaret. “If you liked the movie, you’ve got to read this,” she insisted, handing it to me. “It’s my favorite book now” – high praise from my literary teen. I followed her advice, and by the time I finished it, I knew I had a mission: To get people to read it. I haven’t been affected by a novel – actually any book – like that in a long, long time.

To begin with, Smith’s compassionate portrayal of her characters is clearly what inspired the film’s benevolent tone. There’s no excusing, for example, the alcoholism of Francie’s father, nor the repugnant selfishness of Uncle Willie, but both men elicit our understanding, pity, and even mercy. The novel’s bad characters, like rea57e00kgd-bettysmith-jpgl life, aren’t all bad, and the good characters similarly have their obvious flaws. There’s room in the narrative for grace to operate on every individual’s margins – a place in their broken personalities and spirits for God to stake a claim and undertake a sanctifying operation.

That leads to a second appealing aspect of Betty Smith’s epic that makes it stand apart: its authentic unfolding. Unlike other classic coming-of-age novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows its protagonist’s fortunes throughout adolescence and beyond (unlike the briefer slice of life depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird), and there’s no implied assurance to the reader that all shall be well in the end (as in Anne of Green Gables). Thus, there’s a longitudinal continuity and open-ended moral vision in Tree that seems to be palpably present as you read – as if you’re living what is happening in the novel as it is happening. It’s like an urban American Neverending Story: you get caught up into it and it becomes real.

And it’s a reality you don’t want to end. There were several moments in the reading of this novel that brought tears to my eyes – the first taking place within the first ten pages – but my sobs at the conclusion coincided with turning the last page. Smith’s story was over, and I was left thinking about Francie growing up and moving on to college in Michigan. Would she be alright? What new hurdles and challenges would she face? I missed her already, but I knew I was a better person for having gotten to know her – for having the opportunity to walk beside her and share in her trials and triumphs.

The foregoing assertions are pretty bold, I know, and ordinarily I’d shrink from such ticklish claims given my lack of literary criticism street cred. But I happened upon an article a while back that emboldened me, and I was persuaded that my (and my daughter’s) singular devotion to Tree wasn’t so far-fetched.

AS-edition-Tree-Grows-in-BrooklynIt wasn’t an article about Betty Smith or her story directly. Instead, it was about the cheap, specially-sized paperbacks distributed to U.S. forces overseas during World War II. Molly Guptill Manning had published a history of these “Armed Services Editions,” and Jennifer Maloney reviewed it for the Wall Street Journal.

In her review, Maloney included a brief and engaging portrait of troops taking up serious literature in the midst of combat, but what really caught my attention was her sketch of the Marine who wrote a letter to Betty Smith.

He told her his heart was dead after watching his friend die. For two years, he walked around in an almost comatose state. After contracting malaria he found himself in the hospital without anything to do. When he asked the nurse for a book, she gave him “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” “He started reading it, and he could not believe that he laughed,” Ms. Manning said. “He hadn’t laughed in such a long time.”

Apparently Smith’s narrative also elicited her correspondent’s tears – something the Marine acknowledged as unusual. Nevertheless, “he was proud of his tears because it proved that he was human again,” Manning noted in an NPR interview. “He closed the letter saying that he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep through the night if he hadn’t thanked the woman who caused him to live again.”

Laughter and tears; joy and tragedy – the two extremes of the human condition. Betty Smith’s wonderful tale provides unexpected, subtle insights into how those extremes are intimately connected. “Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and to scream out, and even to suffer that terrible pain,” Smith declares through one of her characters, “than just to be … safe.” That’s a core affirmation in Tree that not only rings true, but clearly confers healing as well.
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1 Comment

  1. Josee Turner

     /  November 4, 2015

    I agree totally! This story and movie should be more widely known. It is a lovely depiction of grace and truth.

    Like

    Reply

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