A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
US, 1943

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Garnder. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climatically.

Chapter 39

I didn’t need to know that Betty Smith started her 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir before fictionalizing it to feel that this scene late in the novel between protagonist Francie Nolan and her 8th grade English teacher was drawn from Smith’s own life. It has the ring of a bitter personal experience, and the novel itself becomes the refutation, bringing vividly to life characters and neighborhood that Miss Garnder considers “sordid” but told in a manner and style that while not shirking from the difficulties of poverty and alcoholism in early 20th century Brooklyn, still manages a certain gentleness in the telling.

I suspect this is because the novel is from Francie’s point of view. It opens when she is 11 and moves back in forth in time, from when her parents are dating to when she is grown and leaving home. And while an adult Francie may recognize just how tough life was for the child, and for her mother, to the child of 11, rounding up scrap for the junk man to earn a few pennies for candy, everything in life is still an adventure to be discovered. She will grow to recognize that the world does not always see her life as she does–where she sees how loving and talented her father is, the world sees him as a good-for-nothing drunk; where her aunt is condemned for her “fast” ways, she sees a woman capable of great kindness and motherly love. This contrasting of views and Francie’s growing awareness of how others see her and her family contribute to what feels a very realistic portrait of a second-generation Irish-American family.

In her Hudson Review essay, “The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (helpfully pointed out by Amateur Reader(Tom)), Joyce Zonana posits that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t received more scholarly notice in part because it deals with female hungers (literal and metaphorical), but I can’t help but wonder if the gentleness I feel reading it is a contributing factor. Although we know–depending on the quality of our imaginations and emphathies, can perhaps even feel–that the Nolans are poor, that they are starving, the visceralness of this reality is tempered by its coating, sandwiched between genuine loving moments between family members, games Katie Nolan makes up to distract her children from their hunger, and nostalgia-tinged descriptions of neighborhood customs and events. This all contributes to the realism and honesty of the novel, but without turning it into an “issue” novel that might get more press.

By turns moving or amusing, lighthearted or heartbreaking, innocent or dark, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a heavily plotted novel, though many things occur. It is a bildungsroman and a series of vignettes that make up a life. That Francie’s life will turn out better than her parents we can but hope, with her mother and grandmother, though we can never be assured. The events in her life and those of her neighbors and relatives make it only too plain that only one wrong turn–a poor decision or an unlucky stroke–can make everything wrong. On the other hand, the opportunities made available to Francie and her brother Neeley thanks to their mother’s insistence on their education–which in the 1910s means even just graduating from grammar school (8th grade), make clear that the possibilities are so much more open to the young generation than their parents or grandparents ever had. It is a vision of the American Dream, not that the child will be the leader of the land, but that the will–and can–do better than the parent.

It did feel as if the ending was a bit rushed. Perhaps this is reflective of life–Francie notes when she turns twelve, that all of a sudden things like Christmas, that once seemed so far away now really do seem to be just around the corner. But it felt more as if as Francie grew older Smith could no longer find much of interest–the adventures of imagining and childhood are behind–and felt the need to quickly wrap up a somewhat lengthy book. This is a minor quibble, though, in what was otherwise an excellent start to my reading year.

This title qualifies as a book by a woman for Back to the Classics 2022.

Back to the Classics 2022, Book Club edition?

I wasn’t going to do Back to the Classics (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate) this year. Nope, no way. No challenges at all. (Which is why I signed up for the 2022 TBR challenge, too, of course.) I just don’t get them finished. Technically, I read books for all but one category last year, but I didn’t write about most of them, which is really my biggest challenge. However, 1) I realized that the 2022 titles for the local classic literature club I’ve joined line up with quite a few of the categories and 2) I need to force myself to practice writing more. Somehow I’ve manged to get hung up on putting words to page, something that used to come at least somewhat easily, so I reason that means I need to do it more. So Back to the Classics Challenge it is.

I’m sure at least some of these possibilities will change. Quite a few of the books I finished by the end of 2021 weren’t on my radar at all at the start of the year; at least one I’d not even heard of. I’m sure the same will happen this year, and I consider that for the better. (Most of those read on a whim were great choices!)

Stack of books to be read.
Some possible Back to the Classics titles already on hand
  1. A 19th century classic – The best fit from book club is Camille (Alexandre Dumas, fils), although I imagine I’ll read other qualifiers as well.
  2. A 20th century classic – I’m sure there will be a number of possibilities. Just off my TBR: Brave New World (Huxley), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), and The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway). Also possible, Lolita (Nabokov) or Maurice (E.M. Forster), both with book club.
  3. A classic by a woman author – I’m late to signing up, so I’ve actually finished a title for this category already, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
  4. A classic in translation – we’ll be reading Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque, a reread), and The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) with book club, so plenty of choices.
  5. A classic by a BIPOC author The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) is book club’s July selection, and it’s been on my want-to-read list for a while, as a bonus incentive.
  6. Mystery/Detective/Crime classic The Blue Train by Agatha Christie has already made it home from the library.
  7. A classic short story collection Enter Jeeves (P.D. Wodehouse) should be fun, and is also on my TBR challenge list.
  8. Pre-1800 classic – many possibilities, since I’m planning on reading lots of Greek Plays, starting with The Persians (Aeschylus). We’ll also be reading Moll Flanders for book club, which I’m really looking forward to.
  9. A nonfiction classic – ordinarily, I might have trouble picking a title for this (I don’t read a lot of classic NF), but the book club will be reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (in August, of course).
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest – my memory told me it was Don Quixote (technically, I’ve read Book 1), but my book shelves obligingly pointed out it was a different Quixote, The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox.
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit – I’m really not sure on this. Tentatively The Farm by Louis Bromfield (I think I work this into every list I can!), but that feels a cheat because Bromfield’s real-life farm is only about and hour or so away, and not so different form farms I see on a regular basis. On the other hand, I DO want to visit Malabar Farm after reading The Planter of Modern Life last year
  12. Wild card classic – well that could be anything. Most likely one of the book club titles listed as a 20th century possibility above, but maybe it will be something I don’t even yet know I might read.

The only question that remains is where to begin?

Back to the Classics 2020, Wrapped

There’s nothing like pushing it to the last minute, but I did it! For the first time, I’ve managed to read books for all 12 categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge AND write about them (for 3 entries in the challenge).

I actually read more than 12 classics in 2020, but that ones listed below are the books I felt best fit Karen’s categories. Other than #5, I didn’t have to make a deliberate plan for any of these categories, in fact, for some of them I had finished the book before I realized that it was a perfect fit (such as The Wind in the Willows).

It feels like it’s been a long time since I read some of these: did I really read The Nibelungenlied this year?

As far as the books, I enjoyed most of them. (I don’t think “enjoyed” really applies to a book like Native Son, but I’m happy I read it.) I can’t believe it took me until this year to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen is always a treat, and Cranford was a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a top read, it would probably be the short story collection Ficciones. There’s no good reason it had been previously abandoned; sometimes I just do that.

My biggest disappointment with this list? Most of them aren’t on my Classics Club list – something to work on for next year!

  1. 19th Century Classic. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)
  2. 20th Century Classic. Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara (1934)
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  4. Classic in Translation. The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio (Italian, 1350-53)
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain (1876)
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell (1851-53)
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  10. Classic About a Family. The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (c 1200)
  11. Abandoned Classic. Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges (1956)
  12. Classic Adaptation. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (1874)

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Scotland, 1908

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though rowans were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and color were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing year. But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk to a casual evensong from a few yet unwearied performers; the robin was beginning to assert himself once more; and there was a feeling in the air of change and departure.

Chapter 9
The Wind in the Willows - Rat and Mole boating
Illustration by E. H. Shepard for The Wind in the Willows

Back in the spring, prompted by a post from Cleo at Classical Carousel, I decided that August would be a perfect time for a read of The Wind in the Willows. And indeed it was: the slow rhythm of passing seasons, of life on the riverbank, is a perfect companion to what I think of as the lazy days of late summer.

But The Wind in the Willows is perfect at many times of year. Nestled cozily protected from winter’s snow, lingering in warm spring breezes, relaxing in summer’s heat, enjoying the crisp cool of autumn–all are equally at home with the residents of the idyllic riverbank.

Much like Cranford, The Wind in the Willows is an episodic tale with early standalone chapters that eventually give way to a final set of connected chapters, all set to the rhythms of the changing seasons. Save for Toad’s frequent misadventures following the latest craze, there is no hurry, no anxiety for the next thing. The animals of the story–Rat and Mole and Badger and Otter–are in communion with the world around them, living and moving by its paces. They understand the changes of the seasons, acknowledge them, adapt to them, live by their rhythms. As I read, it occurred to me that these characters knew something most of us have lost. It is part of the appeal of these tales.

But of course the personalities of the animal friends are also greatly attractive. The irrepressible Toad, the steadfast Mole, the open-hearted Rat, the benevolent Badger. Although Toad’s antics may be the most memorable, his friends’ loyal determination to set him right, to help him overcome his own faults, is lovely indeed. They seem perhaps to be types, characters I might see in a Victorian or Edwardian novel, but their animal natures provide that additional charm and distinction. Add to this the depiction of loyal friendship and they are a wonderful set of creatures to pass time with.

The setting is not merely pastoral, but Edwardian, and there is a real sense of the time and of its space between an idealized agrarian past and the onrush of an industrial–motorized–future. Grahame seems to favor the historic ideal, but there is also a timeless critique of the failings of character. It is not merely that Toad seeks out the latest fad or the rush of speed, he is also at fault for letting his passions overtake his reason, to the extent that he could loose everything he has, perhaps even his friends.

There seems perhaps a rush at the end–everything hastens to tie up neatly, and the conclusion feels abrupt. It is no wonder that so many sequels from other authors have appeared. But perhaps I don’t mind this after all. For now the animals may still live on the riverbank, I may still have my doubts about Toad, and when the seasons change, I can be sure that they will be adapting with them.

I read The Wind in the Willows as part of my Children’s Classics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with Nature in the Title.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samara
John O’Hara
1934, U.S.

I finished reading Appointment in Samarra this morning, as part of a readalong hosted by Meredith (Dolce Bellezza) and Tom (Wuthering Expectations), and find I am still working my way through my own thoughts about it. I feel at a disadvantage in approaching the text as I have read very little from the time period, save a dozen or so Agatha Christies, are those are really not of the same vein as O’Hara’s novel. Even the era is largely unknown to me (outside of the music), set in December 1930 towards the start of what today’s reader knows will be a long Great Depression (but when the novel’s characters still hope that ‘next year’ will be better), and the literature written in the time is even less familiar. By and large, I have not (yet) read O’Hara’s contemporaries.

And yet, there’s a familiarity there, a familiarity that comes from O’Hara’s inclusion of small details of everyday life, the vivid characters that populate the novel, and even from the Pennsylvania coal country setting (which is not so far removed from my midwestern town just outside the edges of Appalachia). It is set in a time and place removed from my own, but by using small, but specific details, O’Hara grounds it in a way that makes me feel I know the place, the characters.

On the face of it, the story is simple enough: it centers around the lives of Julian and Caroline English, their social set, and those nearby who observe or intersect with the Englishs’ everyday lives. The inciting event: Julian throws his drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a holiday party, breaking social taboos and apparently triggering a cascade of ever more self-destructive behavior. And yet it is more than just that. Although set tightly primarily over a period of four days, with glances backwards, and in the final chapter, a look forwards, the ends are not all neatly tied. Real life is messy, and this story is messy: the plot, the characters, the resolutions. This is part of what makes the story so engaging, I think.

Indeed, I find the whole story very real. Sure, to say that throwing a drink in someone’s face will lead to spiral of self-destruction, may sound over-dramatic (especially in an era when all social conventions seem to have been thrown out the window), but I think the truth is, the drink incident–the party–is really entering Julian’s story in medias res. It is not that there is necessarily some specific preceding incident that explains this social crime, but the build-up of Julian’s character to the place where he loses all self-control (if he ever had any) seems to have been an ongoing circumstance. As the novel progresses and we learn more of his character, his past decisions, and his lack of consideration for others (I believe in 21st century terms we would say he has low “emotional intelligence”), it seems apparent that while there may not be an easy explanation for Julian’s actions, the pieces were all there for his self-destruction, and this is just the form it happened to take.

On the other hand, while the story centers around Julian, there are so many other characters there, and his self-destruction spirals out to encompass–or at least impact–many of them. Caroline, is fleshed out as much as Julian and drawn with real sympathy. Lute Fliegler is Julian’s employee, and I am still not sure what to make of the fact that his point of view bookends the novel. Does the destruction of Julian open a way for Lute? Helene Holman and Al Greco both have encounters with Julian that appear to completely change their life trajectories–and yet, we don’t know precisely where. It is yet another nod to reality: any given person’s story only ends with their death; while they live what’s next may always be unknown.

I decided to read Appointment in Samarra almost on a whim: only the day before I read about the readalong, my dad had asked if I were familiar with “Samarra,” and then recited the W. Somerset Maugham retelling that is the epigraph for O’Hara’s novel. He had read it somewhere recently (not in O’Hara), and thought I might know it. When I saw the readalong announced, it seemed inevitable that I must join in, and I am happy I did. It is a novel I feel I could come back to, and perhaps explore other of O’Hara’s writing as well.