Friday, September 30, 2011

Classics Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Once more she looked at Florry Wendy reading on the fire escape.
"Goodbye, Francie." she whispered.
She closed the window.

Are you weeping yet?

From the first moment of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when Francie is sitting on her fire escape, reading, eating candy, watching the ladies in the neighboring apartments wash and dress for their Saturday night dates, I was hooked. I read this book the summer before seventh grade, and I can still remember reading the opening lines and getting chills.

What captivated me most was how real Francie Nolan was, dreaming and thinking and imagining. She's the patron saint of readers and writers and little girls who look at the world and see simple beauty one moment (the library's brown bowl! the Chinese scales!) and terrible reality in the next.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been called a book about hope, but it's still pretty despairing. Francie grows up in terrible poverty, with an alcoholic father and a mother who prefers her handsome, talented brother. She faces cruelty from her neighbors, her teachers, her fellow classmates. Longing for friends and connections, she turns to books. As she grows older, her naivete and need for love makes her prey to a manipulative suitor, who takes and breaks her heart in a matter of hours.

What sets Francie apart, for me, is her ability to experience these painful moments and allow them to change her, rather than hobble her. As a little girl, she hears a doctor and nurse complain, in front of her, of how dirty and ragged she is. It's the first time she witnesses an adult act cruelly to a child, and although she's filled with embarrassment, she still has the dignity to stand up and say something to them. And when Francie herself is cruel, failing to return the smile of an unwed mother just before she's attacked by some morally righteous neighbors, she's hit with such waves of hurt and shame that she vows to never let other people's small-mindedness influence her actions.

Time and again, Francie experiences something terrifying or terrible and, without failing to acknowledge the inherent pain, sees an opportunity to growth. My favorite moment is when she realizes World War I has just begun, and she reflects on how precious life is:

"Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere-be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost."

I'll leave you with one last quote and try to stave off the temptation to paste the whole novel here. I want some enterprising literary nerdy arty girl to silkscreen this on a t-shirt (etsy?):

"What had Granma Mary Rommely said? 'To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.'"

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