Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

I probably never would have read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn if not for The Midnight Garden's Classic YA Read Along.  I had heard of the novel before, of course; I knew of it as a classic, frequently read in high school, and that it was also a favorite read of many of my friends who have more classy literary taste than I.

Reading Part I, I decided that I respected the book due to its importance in American literary history.  I appreciated how well it captured a place and time — which is Brooklyn in the early 20th century.  I admired the great detail that made the setting lively and fully-fleshed.  From an academic standpoint, I liked the book.  However, I was not finding myself really flipping through the pages with relish.

What halted my enjoyment at the onset of the book, was, I believe, the very simplistic sentence structure and childish tone that Betty Smith utilizes.  For instance: 
MAMA came home at six with Aunt Sissy. Francie was very glad to see Sissy. She was her favorite aunt. Francie loved her and was fascinated by her. So far, Sissy had led a very exciting life.
The structure of these sentences, and for most of the sentences in Part I, is comprised of subject-verb openings.  (Occasionally, Smith punctuates this pattern with prepositional openers.) Despite my dislike for the style, I figured that Smith uses this simplistic form to imitate child-Francie's mindset — a form of advanced third person narration.

This surmise turned out to be accurate.  While something of the simplistic tone remained throughout the book, the sentence structure and vocabulary do advance as the book progresses.  We see a marked change when Book I transitions into Book II, which follows Katie and Johnny's early marriage.  I believe this was the point when I started to really enjoy reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, as the voice grew more mature.

Speaking of mature, one of the aspects of the novel that really surprised me was the sheer amount of references to sex.  I cannot say I was expecting that of a period book, but then again, the book was published in 1943. Betty Smith is incredibly thorough in providing setting detail, and, justly, she does not skip over elements of sexuality. The proprietor of a candy shop is a pedophile. Francie overhears marital rape in her apartment building.  Katie shoots a sex offender. Francie's Aunt Sissy works in a condom factory, a detail which almost went over my head.
Sissy brought Francie a present, a corn cob pipe that you blew into and a rubber hen popped up and swelled over the pipe bowl. The pipe came from Sissy's factory. The factory made a few rubber toys as a blind. It made its big profits from other rubber articles which were bought in whispers.
Emblematic of female sexual liberation, Aunt Sissy embodied the "free woman." Religious and social customs do not curb her will in the slightest. Despite being thematic, however, Sissy's characterization is complex.  She is recklessly promiscuous — Francie reports that she's had ten babies, all of whom died (fishy).  She has affairs with married men and encourages other people (Johnny) in their bad habits. She is loose with marriage and divorce. However, she is also depicted as being incredibly generous, loving, and supportive.

This leads me to my final talking point.  There's one element of the book that made me feel uneasy.  I think it's safe to say that A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a feminist book. (Good thing.) However, I think that Smith may have accomplished this by being roughly comparative with men and women.  It's shown over and over again how the women in the book are more resilient and hard-working than men.  We see this with dichotomies.  Johnny and Kate are foils in the sense that we see their partnership diverge after the birth of their children.  While Kate grows strong, Johnny weakens, unable to deal with the realities of parenthood and poverty:
Gradually, as the children grew up, Katie lost all of her tenderness although she gained in what people call character. She became capable, hard and far-seeing. She loved Johnny dearly but all the old wild worship faded away...
Johnny and Francie felt the growing change in Katie. As [Neeley] grew stronger and handsomer, Johnny grew in weakness and went further and further down hill.
Then, there's Eva and Willie Flittman.  Willie is depicted as a bit of a clown.  He's impotent to control his horse, Drummer — his wife has to take over when he fails to control the horse.  He is loved by his wife, like Johnny is, but Willie is simultaneously loved and looked down upon by his spouse, who performs unflattering imitations of him to amuse her family.  Ultimately, Willie skips out of his marriage the moment he has a bit of success.

Likewise, Francie's determination to become educated supersedes Neeley's.  Because of this, she gives Neeley her school money, knowing that Neeley will not pursue education despite all odds, as Francie would.  Altogether, Johnny and Kate, Willie and Eva, and Neeley and Francie form a trend of male/female comparison, in which the males are depicted as weaker, more selfish, and less determined every time. It's a decision on Betty Smith's part that I'm not sure if I should criticize or not.  Ultimately, this is Smith's narrative decision, but does it make A Tree Grows In Brooklyn a welcoming read for young men?

Overall, I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to read this classic. The novel is so rich, there are unlimited possibilities for analysis and conversation.  I'm happy to have done my part and sent my observations and opinions out into the world.  Please, feel free to leave a comment and add to the discussion of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn!

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