Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Novel

The Details:
Published in 1943 by Harper and Brothers.
493 pages.
Top 10 Publishers Weekly bestseller in 1943 and 1944.

One afternoon when I was 14 years old, I wanted to read something refreshingly different from whatever YA stuff I’d been devouring.  I went to my mother’s room and opened a bright green hardback without a dust jacket.

I wasn’t exactly grabbed by the opening lines, but the writing was perfectly easy to understand:

I took a chance and borrowed it, so beginning my first love of a novel written for adults.  That was 13 years ago and I haven’t returned it yet.

A few years later, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.  I’ve read a number of Oprah’s Book Club selections and I’ve been grateful that it has brought so many readers to the book—readers who weren’t attracted to an old copy.

The Author: Elisabeth Wehner was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1896.  She dropped out of high school, married (becoming Betty Smith), started a family, and then attended the University of Michigan.  She divorced, remarried, and began to make a name for herself as a writer in the early 1940s.  Two of her books were adapted as films.  She died in 1972 at the age of 75.

The Setting:  The tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, c. 1900-1920.

The Narrative: Told in third person omniscient, the novel is divided into five books that switch between two generations of a German-Irish family.

The Story: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of how home and community environment shape two generations of working class Brooklynites at the turn of the 20th century. The main character is Francie Nolan, the elder child in a Catholic family.  She struggles to survive a sickly childhood and to thrive in a home where she is loved but suffers amidst family dysfunction.  Her mother, Katie, is emotionally aloof and favors her son, though she is ashamed of the preference and tries to mask it.  Francie’s father, Johnny, a singing waiter, is closer to her.  But Johnny is an alcoholic, which is why the family lives in states of poverty and tension.  Yet he understands the value of her dreams and encourages her to follow them.

As Francie and Neeley grow older, they become aware of the conflict between their father’s way of thinking and their mother’s necessary realism, their father’s alcoholism, and how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty.  Despite its serious subject matter, and many tear-jerking moments, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not devoid of humor.

The Characters:  This is a character-driven story, and all of the characters are developed and unique.  An alcoholic father finds it more comfortable to fantasize about being a wealthy star than to hold a job.  A mother has largely sacrificed her own dreams and her belief in dreams to keep her family fed.  A vivacious aunt never keeps a husband for more than a few years because her babies live for only a few hours.  The daughter, when younger, idealizes childhood memories, education, and a nice neighborhood.  Jaded after experiencing loss, struggle, and natural maturation, she is not cynical at the end.

What I like about Francie that she makes the decision not to seek friendships because they are complicated and lead to pain.  Maintaining friendships– and ending them– can be emotionally draining.  Francie seems to have made a decision to conserve her energies to deal with life’s other problems, not understanding that good friendships provide more energy than they consume.  Still, I appreciate a heroine who was alone without being lonely– one who largely was content with her books like many “reader” types are.

The Themes: The fight for survival; coming of age; the American Dream; poverty; alcoholism; mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships; truth and lies; birth, growth, and death.

The Best Thing: The details of urban family life among the poor second and third generation Americans at the turn of the century and after. The various ways neighborhood children are manipulated and victimized.  There are abundant specifics on hygiene (the unsafe lengths to which the mother goes to prevent her children from getting head lice) and frugality (the stress of saving money for years and the heartbreak of having to redirect those funds when an emergency occurs).

The Worst Thing: The book is near-perfect.  It jumps around in time more than most, but this is for the benefit of the narrative.

Of Note: The debut novel of the author, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is definitely the best of her four works, all of which I will review for Reel Old Reads.

To Read It: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and pretty much any other English language bookstore in the world.  There were some illustrations in my edition (1947):

The Film

Oscar Winners: James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation.

The Details:
Released in 1945.
Produced by 20th Century Fox.
129 minutes.
Black and white.

The Best Thing: The Christmas scenes may be what take this movie from a decent classic movie to a great classic movie.

The Worst Thing:   Changes made in the interest of time.

Differences from the Novel: To do a nearly 500 page book in two hours, many changes were necessary.  Subplots are simplified or eliminated, characters are combined, and the timeline is shortened to about one year.  But it works well, and the major themes of the book remain.

Cast: A young Dorothy McGuire plays the dedicated but edgy mother, Katie.  McGuire was not even 30 years old when the film was made, and she was only 15 years older than the actress playing her daughter.  McGuire is younger than her character, yet plays the part as aged by circumstance.  Peggy Ann Garner is quiet, sensitive, and believable as Francie.  James Dunn makes the father, Johnny, loveable to the children but another burden to bear for the wife.  All of the other performances, from Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy and Ted Donaldson as Neeley down to the bit parts, are perfect.

Courtesy of Reelz.com.

Awards:  Won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (James Dunn).  Nominated for Best Writing/Screenplay (Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger).  Special Academy Juvenile Award (Peggy Ann Garner).

Of Note: Hollywood directorial debut of Elia Kazan, who is best known for On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire.  The Christmas scenes are memorable, and it’s a good movie to watch during the holiday season.

To Watch It:  The movie also airs on Turner Classic Movies periodically, usually around the holidays.  The next showing is December 11, 2012, at 12:30p.m. Eastern.  It’s not to be missed.  It’s also available on DVD.

Your Comments Invited
Share your thoughts below.  And thanks for reading!


The Purpose of This Blog

In this blog, I will review old books.   But not just any old books.  Books that are not bona fide classics but were popular when they were first published AND have been adapted for film.

1. Why these books?  For as many times as someone’s told me, “You’ll love this popular book/author/series,” I’ve wondered why I would want to read something that everyone else is reading.  I’m not saying that popular books are bad because they’ve been lauded by critics or the masses.  I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t enjoy them.

It’s just that there’s nothing like a $1 library book fair find that’s missing its jacket, smells funny, and has someone else’s Ex Libris stamp on the inside cover.  It’s a much better deal than a $25 new release from Barnes and Noble.  Plus the stories are set in a different time and place– and, more importantly, they were written in one.

2. Why the movie tie-in?  The books I will be reviewing on this blog were former bestsellers that were adapted for films, or they were written by authors with whom I have become familiar because other works of theirs were written.  I love old movies as much as I love old books.  There are a lot of bestsellers adapted for film in the 30s and 40s (no different from today), and I like to celebrate the connection.

If you are tired of what’s all the rage now, if you are interested in what entertained, shocked, and inspired a few past generations, if you just saw a movie and want to find out if the book is worth a read, if you are going through some books and are tempted to try them out before donating them to a thrift store, good for you!  I hope you find this blog helpful.

Note:  At this point, I do not intend to review the most popular classics.  They’ve been covered by many, many others.  For example, despite my love for my favorite book, Little Women, I will probably not be reviewing it. But if you haven’t read Little Women, suspend all other activities until you’ve done so. 🙂

I’ve read quite a few books and I have many more that I want to read.  I’ve decided to be choosy and go my own way in terms of what books I select.  Maybe you’re going your own way too.  Maybe we’ll meet and discuss a mutually-appreciated book that no one else we know has read, or even heard of.