Once More to Brooklyn with Betty by Kevin R. Kosar, November 17, 2007
I actually did not especially enjoy the first 100 pages of this novel from 1943. The central character, Francie Nolan, a child from a hardscrabble Irish-Austrian family in Brooklyn, came off as a bit idealized and saccharine. Then, though, the book really took off.
The descriptions of early 20th century Williamsburg/Greenpoint, where I once lived, were rich. Betty Smith had an amazing eye for detail. So many rich yarns, all hung about the coming of age tale of Francie.
For a book written in the first half of the 20th century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn touches on edgy subject matter, such as marital disharmony, alcoholism, and child molestation. Pair this book with William H. Whyte’s socioolgical study, Street Corner Society, and you’ll get a great feel for what life in the poor part of a big eastern city was like between 1900 and 1940. (While A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a fictional account of life from a young female’s perspective, Street Corner Society is a nonfictional examination of the world of adolescent and post adolescent males.)
I own an awful lot of books and I struggle to find shelf space for all of them. In recent years, I’ve begun to prune my collection, getting rid of books that I won’t likely crack again. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though, will stay on the shelf. It is worthy of at least one more read.