The Immigrant Experience: ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ by Betty Smith (1943)


Reading this book for the first time still felt very nostalgic; I was taken back to my childhood, discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ novels.  Wilder wasn’t writing about life in the urban slums, but she was living out The American Dream with a loving family.  Both books are engrossing trips back in time, and both manage to stay on just the right side of sentimentality.

‘A Tree’ is fiction rather than memoir, but it feels extremely true to life, from the geographical precision of the shops in Williamsburg to the details of the Nolan family meals.  We follow Francie and her family through various tenements, schools and jobs as they painstakingly climb their way out of poverty.  Independence, education and hard work are highly prized, but so is imagination.  We’re told ‘The Nolans just couldn’t get enough of life.  They lived their own lives up to the hilt but that wasn’t enough.  They had to fill in on the lives of all the people they made contact with.’  In other words, they tell stories and they tell them well.

The whole book is wonderful as a historical account, a coming of age story and a very well-managed celebration of the American dream and fighting spirit.  Hard work and a strong will are rewarded and everyone has the capacity to improve themselves and their lot in life.  I’m somewhat in awe of Smith because whenever I think of the plot I feel the triumphs over adversity seem too pat to be real, yet when actually reading the book this ceases to be a problem.  Her writing and use of detail evoke hardship compellingly, but without dwelling on it, until the novel itself becomes a model for the positive attitude espoused by its characters.

This is a very different novel to the sparkling Manhattan brilliance of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Franny and Zooey’, but it’s also a different world from the despair of ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ or ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ (my earlier holiday reading, reviews can be found here).  It’s good to be reminded that, even when I’m away from the city, I’ll still be able to enjoy it through my memories and through its fantastic and varied literary evocations.


Image of tenement living from the wonderful Tenement Museum in Manhattan

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3 Responses to The Immigrant Experience: ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ by Betty Smith (1943)

  1. What a great photo. I have all those books to catch up on too…

  2. Pingback: If James Joyce had been brought up in a Manhattan Slum: ‘Call it Sleep’ by Henry Roth (1934) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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