Sometimes you just need to re-read an old favorite. I’ve been in a book slump starting then abandoning book after book because nothing was grabbing me, finally I just gave up for a few days. Then the other night I decided to try again and while flipping through my Kindle library I stumbled upon A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I’ve loved each time I’ve read it. But this time I started to wonder–is each read the same?
For those of you who haven’t read it (what have you been waiting for?) Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Williamsburg at the turn of the 20th century. A far cry from the trendy shops, wonderful restaurants, and skyrocketing property values of today’s Williamsburg, Francie and her family were one of the thousands of poor families living in the tenement sections of New York. Struggles with poverty, poor education, violence, disease, and hunger might give the impression this is a book written as a study of the poor in America. Others may look at the presence of The Union and think of the struggles of the American worker. Or maybe it’s about alcoholism and the family, or maybe it’s just a coming of age story of a young girl? Personally I think it’s all of these and none at the same time.
I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in junior high–maybe 7th grade? In that first read I think I saw nothing but Francie. Francie the older sister trying to help her brother and protect him while succumbing to the jealousies all siblings have. Francie the sometimes shy and quiet girl who loved to read and used books to escape her world. Francie the explorer who wanted to know everything about everything even when it came to choosing soda flavors at the ice cream shop. Francie the daddy’s girl who loved her father more than anything in the world despite all his faults. The first time I saw Francie in everyone and I saw myself in Francie.
It was high school before I read the book again and this time it was older Francie that grabbed my attention. Dealing with boys and trying to push the limits of her independence that was my new connection to her. But the difference this time was that older me saw more of the social and economic elements of the book. The choices her mother made between buying clothes and buying food. Johnny Nolan’s alcoholism and his constant search for work. All the talk of money and the reality of the Nolan’s poverty were background noise to 13 year old me. Now, 16 year old me was paying more attention in history class and all of a sudden A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had become the “real” story pulled from the pages of my text book. It gave me an empathy for this period that my teachers couldn’t.
In my mid-twenties A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became a staple of my re-read rotation and I’ve read it approximately once a year for the last dozen or so years. Now I see more of Katie and Johnny Nolan’s story in the pages than I did in the past. Johnny who wants so desperately to be a good father and to make family proud but who just can’t beat the drink. Katie who’s life just is nothing like she dreamed of but who does everything she can to make her children’s lives better–even when she has to sacrifice her own happiness or make the hard and unpopular decisions. Katie and Johnny who love each other but can’t seem to find their way in their marriage. And then there’s the Rommely women, all strong, all well intentioned, all eccentric, all family. And Sergeant McShane, I’ve definitely developed a soft spot for him as I’ve gotten older.
Where does this leave my relationship with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? The words may be the same and the cover worn and familiar, but I don’t know if in my heart it’s the same book that 13 year old me read–and that’s a good thing. I still don’t think I can give a two sentence summary of what the books is all about but the ability of a story to touch the heart of a teenager, a young woman, and a not so young woman is the sign of a truly timeless classic. I look forward to finding out what 50, 60, 70 year old me sees in the novel. Maybe I’ll find a kinship with Mary Rommely or one of the neighbors? Maybe I’ll see something in Neeley I didn’t notice before. Whatever I find, I know there will always be Francie and for me that’s more than enough.