Friday, August 12, 2016
Early in the fall of 1960, I stole a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library at Robert E. Lee Junior High School in Lynchburg, Virginia. I didn't mean to steal it, I just never returned it. See, my parents made a decision to move to New Jersey just as I entered the 8th grade. Before I knew it, we were packed up and on a Greyhound bus heading toward the Garden State (and my own personal "culture shock"). That bus trip was a long and uncomfortable trip; there was a second horrible Greyhound trip in my life but that's another story, and a sadder one.
My only saving grace on that first bus trip was my stolen book. I read for a straight 20 hours, even nearly walked into the men's room at one of the rest stops along the way because I had Betty's Smith's wonderful story in my hand and in front of my face, trying not to think about how I would have been going to my first sock hop at Robert E. Lee on Friday with a freckle-faced boy named Mark Russell if I had not been kidnapped by my own parents.
That was the first time I read that wonderful book. But it would not be the last. Over the years, I have read it at least 7 or 8 times. My daughter also periodically reads it again. If asked what's the best book ever written, we would both answer A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
(Although, lately, she will be quick to add that #2 is Sarah Silverman's Bedwetter.)
I will quote here the first page blurb because I am not writer enough to do it justice.
"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heap[s]. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water,and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of [it]."
There are parts in the book that stand out in my mind so vividly that when I think of them I almost feel that I am right there when Francie lies to get a beautiful doll, and I am right there when she realizes that shame is hard to live with. I feel the longing when Francie sees the school in a different neighborhood where she wants to be a student, and I am beside her when her father, Johnny, convinces her mother, Katie, to tell the school that they are moving to an address in that school district. I am also Katie when she knows it's wrong and allows it in the name of love for her daughter. I adore Aunt Sissy just as Francie and her brother, Neely, do, and when the children find "balloons" in her purse and blow them up and hang them out the apartment window, I feel their confusion at the consequences that fall upon Sissy.
There is the brave and joyful Christmas tree incident, and the coffee can nailed to the closet floor where Katie hides away every nickel she can pinch from their poverty for her children's future. I mourn for Johnny, whose weakness for drink finally takes him from his family. I am terrified for Francie when the man on the dark stairway tries to drag her away.
So many memorable scenes. There is not one scene in the book that I don't associate with one thing or another in my own life. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a history lesson (set in the early twentieth century), a geography lesson. A treatise on the politics of the era. An understanding of poverty. There's love and hate and sorrow, stoicism, family unity, and courage from the heart.
Everyone should read this old book.
My copy, stolen accidentally (after reading it, however, I certainly wasn't going to send it back to Lynchburg) is held together with silver tape that is now dried out and cracked, and the pages fall out. I suppose I could find a new copy online. But I think I probably won't. I'll just keep tucking the pages back between the torn, broken cover, and read it again.