Hannah Roberts, Contributing Writer
Over this Christmas break, much like over many other breaks, I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I first read this book when I was 12 years old or so, when my mother handed it to me, saying it was one of her favorite books. In the decade since then, I have read it, sometimes from cover to cover, sometimes just my favorite bits, a dozen times or more.
Each time, I find that I identify with a different part, and although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not nearly as deep and influential as the Iliad, the Divine Comedy or Oedipus Rex, I still find new things I had not noticed each time I read it before.
The book is what would be called a “coming-of-age story.” It is about a girl named Francie Nolan – a quiet girl who likes to read on her fire escape, by a big tree growing through the concrete next to her building – and her family. They are poor Irish-Americans living in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. The book deals with the issues that Francie and her parents and aunts face.
The novel is divided into five sections that cover almost 20 years, though not all sections are chronological. They include Francie’s parents’ meeting, her birth, and her time in school, at work and in college. From crowded classrooms and bullies to alcoholism and rape, this story presents many different situations from the perspective of the young and innocent.
When I think about this book, I can remember several scenes more vividly than the rest. One of them is a fairly silly story about Francie and her scandalous Aunt Sissy when Francie first began school.
The grade school Francie attended, like many others in New York at the time, was over-crowded, and the teachers were overworked and jaded. The author addresses the problem many of the young children faced, which “was delicately called ‘leaving the room.’” She writes that this problem was “a grim one.”
“The children were instructed to ‘go’ before they left home in the morning and then to wait until lunch hour.” But at lunch the lavatories were so overcrowded (“there were but ten lavatories for five hundred students”) – and even those were blocked by bullies who did not let any of the other children through – that taking this opportunity was nearly impossible.
The author writes, in what I have always thought was the funniest paragraph: “Technically, a child was permitted to leave the room if he asked permission. There was a system of coy evasion. One finger held aloft meant that a child wished to go out but a short time. Two fingers meant desire for a longer stay.”
But, unfortunately, the “harassed and unfeeling” teachers believed that the children were abusing this system to be excused from the classroom, and they subsequently ignored the children’s requests.
Francie notes that “the favored children, the clean, the dainty, the cared-for in the front seats, were allowed to leave at any time. But they were different somehow.” The result of all of this was that half of the children, including Francie, “became chronic pants-wetters.”
Francie’s Aunt Sissy, who at the time was not allowed to see Francie and her brother on account of her scandalous lifestyle, tries to fix the leaving-the-classroom problem. She runs into Francie after school one day and learns of the issue, telling Francie that she will fix it by burning a candle in the church.
The next day Sissy goes to the school before classes and talks to the teacher. She claims to be Francie’s mother and tells the teacher that Francie has kidney trouble, and she warns the teacher that Francie is “liable to drop right down dead” if she is not able to leave the room when she needs to, and that the teacher could end up in jail.
The teacher is suspicious, but Sissy manages to convince her by claiming that a large cop, who happens to be outside at the moment, is her husband. She does this by shouting “Yoo, hoo, Johnny” out the window to him, and blowing a kiss. The cop, assuming of course that this was because he was “a devil amongst the ladies,” blows a kiss back.
Sissy then tells the teacher that they have a lot of money and “Christmas is coming.” Because of all of this, Francie’s seat is moved to the front of the room until after Christmas, and she is always excused when she needs to be.
This story from the book is one of my favorites, but I have dozens of others, many of which do not revolve around the toilet. The reason the scenes are so wonderful is that I can relate to every part.
I know exactly how that schoolroom appeared and what the teachers were like, why they were like that, and how both the bullies and their victims felt.
I do not know this because of many lengthy descriptions, but from the way in which the words “paint a picture” without direct description.
Even though I have read this book many times, I still cry when Francie’s father Johnny dies, and get excited when Francie finds a good job. I can perfectly picture the schools, the apartments and the factories.
I now know what it was like to be poor and young in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Flourishing in that environment was hard, but possible – like a tree growing in the midst of concrete Brooklyn.
This essay is meant as the first of a series. Do you have a favorite book? If so, send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org