Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “New York”

A Mistaken Tree

Have you ever avoided something because of a developed perception?  Foods, movies, places, and unfortunately at times, books, can get slighted because of mistaken notion of what it is all about.

Take A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, for example.  I’ve known about this novel for years, and even tried reading it once. I started reading with a formed bias that  the plot focused on a poor family living in New York with an alcoholic father who kept them back from success. I didn’t want to read yet another sad story about poor people (I might have just finished The Jungle) and I put the book down after a few pages and did not return to it until recently.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not sure why I decided to try the novel again.  I’m not one who seeks out what I call “downer” reads–those books where reality gets too real and somebody dies or there is a tragic accident or there is unmitigated loss.  I’m not much of a reader of Dickens for those reasons. Yet, in my quest to read all the old classics and the touted contemporary ones I checked out ATGiB once again.  As I began reading  I found out what the plot really was about: it centers on a poor family living in New York with an alcoholic father who keeps them back from success.

Discriminating Voice: Umm, excuse me–wasn’t that what kept you reading the book the first time?

CM: Yes, actually.

DV: The difference this time?

CM: I kept reading.

That’s right the reason that stopped me reading it the first time got set aside and I plunged on, despite my preconceived bias.  I don’t know why I listened to that squeamish inner reader voice  the first time.  I liken that inner reader voice  to the fussy eater voice I had as a kid. Especially when it came to eating broccoli.  When young I didn’t appreciate it until I had tried other vegetables over the years and decided it was actually pretty tasty.  So it can be with a read.

I think I stopped reading ATGiB because the opening involved description and a bit of poem about how the sadness, yet homeyness of Brooklyn.  Being a West Coast gal I could not a)relate to New York at all and b)I was not into poetry at the time.  Now having sampled, nibbled, and devoured poetry over the years I appreciated what Smith had established–setting.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does center around a family (the Nolans) who live in New York (Brooklyn) in which the father is an alcoholic, and his alcoholism does create hardship for the family.  It also centers around Brooklyn in the early to mid 1900’s. The tree serves as a metaphor throughout the story.

p. 6:
The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock.  It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas  Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky.  It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.

image Wikipedia

That’s the story right there in that paragraph.

The Nolan family consisting of Francie, her younger brother Neeley and her parents, Johnny and Katie, struggled throughout the novel, barely surviving the trials of their poverty. Contrary to the harsh aspects of their tenement life was the slice of heaven they called Brooklyn.  The omniscient narrator takes the readers on the life journey of the Nolans, with Francie as our guide.

Francie is as tough and irrepressible as Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter). I do have a fondness for those tough chicks of literature.

Simply said, this time around I devoured the book, which proved difficult because I wanted to stop and savor it as well.  Betty Smith is a wordsmith and descriptive narrative is her forte.

These two visiting teacher were the gold and silver sun-splash in the great muddy river of school days, days made up of dreary hours in which Teacher made her pupils sit rigid with their hands folded behind their back while she read a novel hidden in her lap.  If all the teachers had been like Miss Bernstone and Mr. Morton, Francie would have known plain what heaven was.  But it was just as well. There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.

The novel also is rich in detail, providing a living portrait of Brooklyn in the 1900’s, its sorrows, its hardships, its comedy, and its people.  I have a new RRS (re-read someday) favorite.

My takeaway transfer, from reader to writer is this: do not be stingy on the details.  Yes, yes–I’ve heard this writing advice many times.  Seeing it in actuality brings the lesson to reality.  Betty Smith recreated Brooklyn through the lives and eyes of the Nolans.  They survived and thrived just like that tree that grows in Brooklyn.



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