A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human. —Anna Quindlen
Each week we'll throw back to one of our favorite classics...or books that are classics to us. We're kicking off our first Throwback Thursday with a longtime favorite: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If you've never read it, we highly recommend you remedy that pronto. Go ahead, we'll wait as you dash to your nearest library or bookstore. Tracy has even agreed to look the other way while you download it to your phone in order to listen to it. That is how much we want you to read this book. You'll be better for having known Francie Nolan. Here's a favorite passage:
From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.
For those of you that have already spent time with Francie, looking out her third-story window at the tree that grew in cement, the tree "that liked poor people," here are a few enticements to encourage your return:
Did you know the book is autobiographical? It was originally written as a memoir but an editor encouraged Smith to re-configure it as fiction. So that English teacher who gave Francie "C"s for daring to write, as Anna Quindlen put it, stories about "real-life horror instead of gerrymandered tales of apple orchards and high tea," got her comeuppance when Betty's story became a bestseller. Who doesn't love a little poetic justice?
If you don't already have the edition with a forward by Anna Quindlen (another person we are best friends with in our minds), it is well-worth your money. You can find it here.
During WWll, librarians who were angered by Hitler's banning and burning of millions of books, launched a campaign to send books to American troops overseas. They issued a rally call for donations and over 20 million hard cover books were donated from across the country. Soon, the War Department and the publishing industry became involved and printed what would become known as Armed Services Editions (ASEs) of well-loved novels. These editions were small, lightweight paperbacks that the soldiers could carry in their pockets. You can read more about this in Molly Guptill Manning's When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win WWll. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn quickly became one of, if not the most, popular of all ASEs, turning Betty Smith into a national icon. Manning writes:
Smith once estimated that she received approximately four letters a day from servicemen, or about fifteen hundred a year. She responded to almost all of them...Smith and the council were so inundated with letters about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that the council decided to reprint the book. "I think it's wonderful that the armed services edition is going into a second edition," Smith told a friend. "Most of my mail is from servicemen overseas and without exception, they say that everything in [A Tree Grows in Brooklyn] seems so true that it's not like reading a book—it's like being home in Brooklyn again." "Some letters bring tears to my eyes," she admitted. "I am very much touched by the service men away from home thinking so much of the book. I feel that I have done some good in this world."
Smith did indelible good when she published her essay, "Who Died?" personalizing the deaths of the soldiers lost on the beaches at Normandy:
I've just been told that over 3,000 of our American boys died in the first eleven days of the invasion of France.
Who died? I'll tell you who died.
Not so many years ago, there was a little boy sleeping in his crib. In the night, it thundered and lightninged. He woke and cried out in fear. His mother came and fixed his blankets better and said, "Don't cry. Nothing will ever hurt you."
There was another kid with a new bicycle. When he came past your house he rode no-hands while he folded the evening paper in a block and threw it against your door. You used to jump when you heard the bang. You said, "Some day, I'm going to give that kid a good talking-to." He died.
Then there were two kids. One said to the other, "I'll do all the talking. I just want you to come along to give me nerve." They came to your door. The one who had promised to do all the talking said, "Would you like your lawn mowed, Mister?"
They died together. They gave each other nerve...
They all died.
And I don't know how any one of us here at home can sleep peacefully tonight unless we are sure in our hearts that we have done our part all the way along the line.
Posted by Rachel