book club: ‘a tree grows in brooklyn’.

by Michael King

As a reader, I tend to shy away from ‘the classics’ in my selections. They’ve been mined for meaning, it seems to me, and there are so many stories waiting for my shovel. But here, now, in the days of quarantining far away from my family, I took A Tree Grows in Brooklyn down from the shelf. My Mom’s favorite book. I turned the page and began.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in the early 1900’s, before World Wars and the complications of technology. Its characters inhabit Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though the story lives and pours from the mind of Francie Nolan. She is young, bright, and her eyes are just opening to the truths of the world. Surrounding her are her family members, a younger brother Neely, her hardworking mother Katie, and her warm-but-wayward father Johnny. At the novel’s start, this is her world, and books are her only connection to anything outside of it.

Francie always remembered what the kind teacher told her. “You know, Francie, a lot of people would think that these stories that you’re making up were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happenedTell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”

At its heart, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming-of-age story. At school, in the city, at her home, Francie encounters new truth after new truth. At the story’s start, she sees her father as a steady beacon of warmth, and she only gradually begins to understand the perils of his shortcomings. She learns her family does not have much money, that her father is not seen as heroic by everyone, that her mother does not always know what’s next. She takes it in and pressed forward, a harrowing reminder to any of us who survived our own coming of age.

Once, in the washroom, Francie overheard a remark about Miss Armstrong being the boss’s mistress. Francie had heard of, but never seen, one of those fabulous beings. Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress… Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender, and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. “Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress,” concluded Francie. She looked down at her own long thin legs. “I’ll never make it, I guess.” Sighing, she resigned herself to a sinless life.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is, as you might imagine, a bit of a time capsule. Williamsburg no longer hosts horses through its crowded streets, and it is no longer commonplace for children to forego high school to support their families with factory jobs. Sometimes, in reading through Francie’s adventures, I found myself catching elements that resembled the stories of my grandmother: teachers who grade students harshly to keep them humble, aunts and uncles taking an active parental role in a child’s life, births carried out in the home. There are also, it’s worth noting, examples of racism portrayed innocently –– yellow paint to resemble a ‘China man’ is an image that sticks out to me –– and these moments are jarring reminders, too.

Katie heard the story. “It’s come at last,” she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. When there wasn’t enough food in the house you pretended that you weren’t hungry so they could have more. In the cold of a winter’s night you got up and put your blanket on their bed so they wouldn’t be cold. You’d kill anyone who tried to harm them… Then, one sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give your life to spare them.”

The tale shared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn sweeps, I think, three or four years. In that time, however, we get a sense that a lot can change, even when our surroundings seem to stay the same. Francie has brushes with joy, danger, grief, love, heartbreak –– a lot of life to be lived between two covers of a novel. The experience of taking in her story was, to me, the closest reading has ever felt to sitting by a fireplace. I’m grateful I didn’t pass this classic up, because –– though faults exist –– there is still meaning to be mined.