My neighborhood book group chose Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this month. It was fun to reread this book after 15 or 20 years because although the book has not changed, I have. I remembered the coming of age story about Francie, growing up in an impoverished family in Brooklyn 100 years ago. But I’d forgotten—or ignored on my previous reading—much of her mother’s story.
Katie, the mother, has the wisdom of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. Katie grieves that she feels closer to Neeley, the younger brother than to Francie—still, most of Katie’s mothering skills and wisdom are far beyond those of us mortal moms. At age 17, Katie marries a handsome, fun-loving boyfriend who turns out to be a chronically underemployed alcoholic. When Katie tries to reform Johnny by keeping him away from liquor, her sister, Sissy, sneaks a bottle of whiskey to relieve Johnny’s DTs. Sissy tells Katie that she knew Johnny drank and had no steady job when she married him. Reforming Johnny is not a choice. She can either leave him or love his good qualities and compensate for his weaknesses. At our group discussion, we all admitted trying to change our husbands—unsuccessfully. “If we could change them, we might not love them anymore,” one wife commented.
Katie does not let poverty define her family. She allows Francie to pour out unwanted coffee and milk just so she won’t feel destitute. She insists her children stay in school even though the family needs the income they could provide. Education will liberate her children to a better life than their parents had. Katie’s wisdom extends to not calling foolish behavior sinful and to not instilling guilt in her children. When she finds a pack of cigarettes in 16-year-old Francie’s purse, she says there are worse things she could be doing—so Francie throws the cigarettes away.
It’s hard for people born in the latter half of the 20th century to realize that people living at the beginning of the century had no social network in place. No Social Security for children whose fathers die or for an elderly grandmother, no paid sick leave or maternity leave for a woman who cleans buildings to feed her children, no unemployment insurance for laid off workers.
I was surprised to read in a journal, that my grandmother had read this book in 1945. Grandma, who could not bring herself to tell me how babies got inside their mothers’ tummies, apparently enjoyed this book with its frank (for its day) portrayal of human sexuality.
A question young Francie asks herself is why everyone calls Aunt Sissy a bad woman when Aunt Sissy is the kindest person she knows. This is the same kind of question we should be asking ourselves today. At 500 pages, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a short read, but it is entertaining as well as insightful.