I remember the first time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was at the beginning of a looong bus ride from Virginia to Tennessee in the early 80’s, and busses weren’t nearly as comfortable in those days as they are now. I’m afraid I probably wasn’t very good company for my friend, because once I got into the book, all I wanted to do was read. It definitely made a long trip go more quickly though. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is often characterized as an adolescent novel, but really, it was first published for adults. It’s long, and there are sections that are very adult, including but not limited to the character of the protagonist’s (Francie) Aunt Sissy, who works in a condom factory! And it’s not just a woman’s story, in fact, during World War 2 it was one of the most popular of the Armed Services Editions of books that were printed in small, easily transportable formats for the troops to read during spare moments. Remember in World War 2 all the troops would have been male, most of them very young.
In addition to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith published three more novels: Joy in the Morning, Tomorrow Will Be Better, and Maggie-Now. I’ve read all three, and I owned two of them when I was a teenager. Maggie-Now, which I’ve only read recently, I didn’t care for, and I remember little about. Tomorrow Will Be Better has a rather shocking ending for its time. I like it, I think it tells an important story about its time and place. I read it several times, but it always leaves me a bit flat. Besides A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Joy in the Morning is my favorite, and in some ways I like it more. It doesn’t have the breadth and depth of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (ATGIB), but it is a worthy and pleasant read either for those who don’t have time for ATGIB (although it is one to make time for at some point in life) or for the times when you need a relative happy story. Also, it is a story that simply isn’t told that often. Coming of age stories are so common that there is a fancy name for them: Bildungsroman, which literally translates to “novel of education.” That’s what ATGIB is. You don’t see books about starting a marriage that often, and what’s also interesting about Joy in the Morning is that it’s the female character who is more adult, since she has been working since she was 14 while her young husband has been in school, In a manner of speaking, it is she is the one who leaves home to “seek her fortune”. Carl, her young husband, has traveled to the midwest to attend university, but he is supported and relatively sheltered by his family back in Brooklyn.
Although it isn’t intended to be, I’ve always thought of Joy in the Morning (JITM) as kind of a companion book to ATGIB. Although Annie, the protagonist, is definitely not the same character as Francie in ATGIB, the novel is set in the same rough time period (about 10 years later), and in a place where Francie could have been as a young adult. From the perspective of 100 years, it’s kind of nice to have some idea of what Francie did next. In fact, both novels are based on settings from Smith’s life: she grew up in Brooklyn, and she was with her husband in a Midwestern college in the 20’s.
I enjoy the local color in JITM: my university years are fond memories for me, just like they are for a lot of people, so I enjoy reading about university life in the 1920’s. Strangely, university life as depicted by Smith in the 1920’s doesn’t seem that different than it was for me in the 1980’s: it was possible to live very cheaply, in a way that doesn’t seem so now. Certainly the day-to-day life doesn’t seem that different. The chance to really enjoy learning seems to be the biggest thing. From my perspective as an adult, I also appreciate that the university in the novel is co-ed, during a time when women’s going to university with men was a relatively new thing. As a factory girl from Brooklyn, the world Annie joins is completely new, not only for her from a class perspective but for everyone from a gender perspective.
In the end, however, this is a love story. I don’t like romance novels much. I think I have been through enough “romances” of my own to really not care much about surges of emotion. I don’t understand how people can fall in “love” with just a look and a jolt of hormones (and yes, I have been happily married). What I like about JITM is that the wedding happens in the first few pages of the novel, and the primary plot doesn’t even hinge on whether the two will make it as a couple: the plot hinges on whether Carl will be able to finish law school or need to drop out to support his family. His relationship with Annie does have a lot to do with his success or failure though because it’s not easy for them to survive with the sudden change in their surroundings, their low income, and the iffy birth control available.
The epigraph of the book is so true: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalms 30:5). How often do we lie awake in bed dreading the next day, and as soon as we get out of bed, it doesn’t seem that bad?
JITM doesn’t have the emotional pull of ATGIB, and perhaps as readers we aren’t with Annie long enough to start to feel it, but the message that everything will be ok as long as we work with the ones we love, and not against them, is a message I have heard and need to periodically hear again.
Above is the high school graduation photo of my maternal grandmother, Ida C. Clark, taken in the early 1920’s. She was 2 years older than the fictional Francie Nolan, protagonist of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Here is the complete film version. It seems very sweet, although the French actress doesn’t really satisfy me with her depiction of Annie.
When Books Went to War is the story of the Armed Forces editions of books that were produced especially to provide diversion for American troops during World War 2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a favorite.
Here is a clip of a pivotal scene from the highly regarded film of ATGIB. Honestly, not my favorite.
Understanding the Tenement and Immigrant Culture
Jacob Riis is famous for his documentation of the slums of New York. He used brand new technology, the flash photo, to document the conditions in the tenements of New York during the time depicted in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie Nolan is fictional, but her living conditions were not, in fact, they were better than many. When she starts school in the novel, she is unique among her classmates in that she is the only second-generation native-born American.
If you are visiting New York City, take some time to experience living conditions such as the real families that Smith’s characters are based upon by visiting the Tenement Museum. The highlight is a visit to an actual tenement apartment that has been preserved. The apartments they use are real, and they are tiny, so reservations are required. Don’t just show up.
The website linked above is also very informative.
On Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Danielle Evans, from Tin House magazine
a 1999 article from The New York Times about the power of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn