Perfect books don't come around too often. In total, I think I've read three of them this year--all completely different--and that seems like an awfully high number. I think it's been a very lucky year. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is definitely a perfect-to-me book, and I am so grateful that Heather has been bugging me to read it all these years. I bow to your all-knowingness, my friend.
Francie Nolan is a smart, resourceful, bookish, underprivileged girl living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Her father, Johnny, is a loving drunk, singing waiter, and all-around nice guy. Her mother, Katie, is a bit hardened by life and does whatever it takes to provide for her family while trying to bring the kids up with a smile. Her brother, Neely, is a typical little brother. Francie's aunts, Sissy and Evy, provide lovely comic relief.
I think I shied away from this book for so long because it didn't seem to have a specific angle. No mysterious locales, no crazy characters, no genre element to speak of (besides a bit of the historical). It just seemed to fall into the "family drama" category, and I admit to having attitude when it comes to that very wide open, blanket category.
What I actually found between the covers is a remarkable feat of characterization. Every member of the family is so unique but so universal, too. At times I felt like I was sitting back watching Katie and her sisters the way I would've listened in on a conversation between my sassy grandmother and her sisters...all characters in their own right. And beyond the family ties, the location is very much a character of its own. Williamsburg comes alive, from the junk shop to the candy store. The downtrodden, the lonely immigrant, the stalwart populace.
I guess part of me also expected a "sweet" book. Given the time period when the book is set, and the fact that it was published in 1943, I thought it would be a lot of goody-goody. But I was wrong there, too. Brooklyn was a rough place. There was a lot of need and poverty. Times were changing and people were just trying to keep up. This book was downright gritty in spots--sexual predators, heavy drinking, brutal pregnancies, hunger, poverty, injury.
The priority for Katie, and thus for Francie and Neely, is education. Like any mother, she wants her children to do better than she and her husband. Katie made the children read one page per day from the Bible and one page from Shakespeare in hopes that they would gain knowledge. As a mother, it's a constant worry to try and figure out how to bring little people up with the right priorities. College, learning, curiosity, responsibility. This book is saturated with the story of a mother fighting to help lift her children up. Even though Francie is the protagonist, and this book is focalized by her, I could personally identify with Katie so very much. That definitely added an extra layer of meaning and emotion to the book for me.
I could go on gushing about the greatness of this one for a long time, but I'll wrap it up by saying that it carries one of my favorite book titles ever. Symbolically, that is. I won't tell you exactly how it plays in the book, but you won't be disappointed by the analogy. Sometimes strong, sure, scrappy, beautiful things grow and flourish in the darkest, roughest places.
And if you were wondering about the other two, "perfect books" I've read this year...A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Sparrow. :)
Pub. Date: January 2005
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: Heather gifted me a copy!
If you can handle more gushing, watch the video review!