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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perfect. Absolutely perfect. The only thing that could have improved my experience with this book would have been finding it fifteen years sooner. I wish twelve year-old me had known this book existed, and had been able to experience the life of Francie Nolan when we were closer to the same age. But even as an adult, I’ve found a kindred spirit in this scrappy little girl from Brooklyn, and watching her grow up and experience both heartaches and triumph was one of the most wonderful reading journeys I’ve ever embarked upon. Better late than never.

Francie and her family are incredibly poor, barely able to scrape by. Meals are sometimes scant, sometimes skipped. But in spite of hunger and cold, Francie is happy. She experiences life to the absolute fullest, wringing enjoyment from every possible source. Is she sometimes unhappy and angry and afraid? Of course. But she overcomes adversity by following doggedly in the footsteps of her mother, but with her father’s sunnier outlook on life.

Witnessing all the various ways in which Francie’s life changes, be they slow and steady changes or alterations that spring up fast enough to induce whiplash, is a study in the human condition and a child’s resilience. But what I loved most here was Francie’s intense love of words, and how that love manifests itself during different portions of her life. I have never in my life related more to a quote from a book than I did this one:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books because her friends and there was one for every mood.”

I had a hard time making friends with kids my own age when I first started school. I could strike up conversations with adults and even older kids, no problem. But I didn’t relate well to people my own age. Plus, I looked kind of funny, and there’s no one in the world meaner than kids. So I submersed myself in fiction for the first five years of elementary school. Once I got braces and grew into my ears and hit puberty, I developed friendships with most of my (very small) class. But, until then, I carried a book with me onto the playground and into the cafeteria every single day. So the magic Francie found in books, I found too.

It’s hard to explain why this book impacted me so much. It’s just the story of a poor girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. But she was so real to me. And every character I saw through her eyes was real, even with their flaws, whether those flaws were real or simply implied by Francie. She’s fictional, but I love her. I love her family and her neighbors and the character of her neighborhood itself. Betty Smith did a fantastic job showing us Francie’s life through the girl’s own eyes, instead of just telling us about it.

If you’ve never read this book, you should. It’s a classic for a reason, and it’s one I’ll be revisiting again and again. If there’s a little girl in your life who inhales books like the words they contain are oxygen, please give her a copy of this book. She’ll find a lifelong friend in France Nolan. I know I did.

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