A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: It’s a time machine

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By: Betty Smith
Best for: 16 and up

Time travel is real!

What defines a Classic Novel? At what point does a story transcend others and become eternal? It’s not age. It’s not genre. It’s not language, length, or style. Check the internet–I’m not the only one trying to figure it out!

It seems to me “The Classics” have a few things in common:

1) A universal theme that examines how humans behave (growing up, death comes to all, love, power…stuff like that)
2) It’s so well written it begs to be read over and over
3) It defines a genre
4) The message resonates as much today as it did when it was written
5) Its characters connect with the reader
6) Its message is open for interpretation–it doesn’t tell you how to judge its characters

There. I just defined Classic Literature. Go tell the internet I figured it out. It fits Harry Potter and it fits The Count of Monte Cristo and it fits The Great Gatsby. It fits Ender’s Game and it fits Lord of the Rings and it fits Pride and Prejudice.

And it fits A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

What a wonderful story! I wish I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn years ago. I went into it with zero expectations. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware it existed before I picked up both the eBook and the audio book back in 2020 in anticipation of a future appetite for what I’d assumed was a contemporary, coming-of-age character drama. Even then, it sat unread for nearly 3 years. I only picked it up now because I’d exhausted my unread Audiobooks and I needed something for the car.

I had an inkling early I had stumbled on something special. It started slow in that way many books do while you acclimate to a new voice. I was quickly snared. Listening in the car wasn’t enough. I typically have an audio book and a separate eBook in progress at all times, but I paused the eBook I was working on for this one–A Tree Grows in Brooklyn demanded all my attention.

What was happening?!

This book was written in 1943 by an author who died in 1972. (I had no idea btw–I checked the pub date when I was about 1/4 through and was shocked it wasn’t a contemporary author). It’s about a little girl growing up in pre-World War 1 Brooklyn, New York. That’s it, literally. That’s what the book’s about, from beginning to end. So what had me so engaged?! There was no mystery. There were no plot twists. There was no great love story, no magic, no great evil to fight. What was it about this unknown book that unexpectedly bound me so tight I could only free myself slowly, a page at a time? I figure it out. It’s two things:

First, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a literal time machine.
Second, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is all of us.

Yes, I’m a time traveler. I don’t have a DeLorean or a flux capacitor, but I spent a few amazing days in Brooklyn, New York between 1912 to 1918. I lived with a poor but determined family called Nolan in their small tenement apartment. I went to school with Francie and Neeley, their children, and watched them grow from being innocent to their poverty to wanting to rise above it. I spent hours scrubbing floors with Katie, their mother, who refused to let poverty deny the American dream for her children. I despaired along with dad Johnny, who loved his family powerfully but couldn’t provide the support they needed.

As I spent these few days with the Nolans, I experienced the New York I’ve only imagined in pictures and ideas. I was there! I saw first generation Americans on the street and in their homes. I watched them talk to each other in German and Italian and Polish, merging cultures while preserving identities to create AMERICA. I went to church with them. I went to work with them. I went to school with them. I sang their songs. Went to their plays. I was there when they were born. I was there when they died. I was there when they fell in love. I was there when they realized they were the same as that tree growing in Brooklyn that just wouldn’t die no matter what the city did to it: they just kept on living.

And that’s also how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is all of us.

How did Betty Smith paint such a vivid picture with her words? Turns out the story is semi-autobiographical. She grew up in the Brooklyn tenements. She lived what she wrote first hand and told a story about it.

What a treasure. What a wonderful story.

There are no modern content concerns of sex, violence, or language–again, it was written in 1943. But there are plenty of mature situations and grown up themes. Love and loss, depictions of poverty, and alcoholism are present. There is a dramatic scene of an attempted abduction by a child predator. I recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to any mature reader and to Advanced Lit teachers in High Schools everywhere. Officially, I say best for 16 and up.

Happy Reading!

4 responses to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: It’s a time machine”

  1. This is one of my favorite reads ever. I first read it when I was younger than Francie. I read it over and over again as I grew up. My last read I realized I was now older than Katie. This book is a classic I found randomly when I was little and wish more people would read it now. Loved this review.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A book you must read , Ruth Ginsberg mentioned a tree grows in Brooklyn. I’ve been anxious to read it. I been sidetracked. And very much appreciate your comments. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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