Among the many hundred books lying unread in my TBR, there are many gems and some which make for a good read, some which makes me wonder how did it get in my list and then some that sing to me! The June Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith sang to me in sonnets, of tenacity, hope and the power of knowledge that alone can save complete deprivation!
The novel is set in the turn of century Brooklyn, where a quiet, shy child of 11 years, Francie Nolan lives with her younger brother Neely Nolan, her mother, Katie Nolan, who works as a janitor in the building where they live and her singer-waiter father, Johnny Nolan. They are poor and food mostly consists of many variations of stale bread, and yet a penny is always saved in the a small tin bank and joys are to be found, in reading a book by the window with a snack and lemonade. Their lives are crowded with challenges and etching out a bleak living, but they are still lives full of living and small success, of chalking out a scheme to go a better school outside of your district and of managing to wangle the biggest Christmas tree through sheer grit. There is a family of aunts who are always, there to support and spoil, especially on those days when father, comes home drunk, unable to hold down a job and neighbors who come around to pull you through when needed. But then comes one of those full stops of life, which change the directions and make Nolan’s reassess the way they had mapped out their lives and force them to find new paths, until the make it to the desired end!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a wonderful coming of age book, that is not pedagogic or didactic and yet does not sentimentalize the harsh realities of poverty and deprivation in some noble glow. The novel just tells a story of things as they were, without any moralizing or martyrdom. The characters are all uniformly likable, and even when you start losing patience with some, you are remained of their redemptive traits and made to recollect, that men and women are just that, men and woman; struggling to the best of their abilities to make better lives, one generation to another, sometime, succeeding and sometime failing! The marvelous feature of this book is that almost every reader, will find a piece of themselves in one character or the other, with their believable portraits of people in flesh and blood! The plot goes back and forth, to explain the coming together of Katie and Johnny, giving insights into some of the character traits and contradictions and then moves forward, as Francine grows into a young woman, on the eve of US joining World War 1. 500+ pages may seem a bit tedious to follow, but the story, albeit not crowded with epoch making events, nevertheless gently flows and one is never really bored, though the scenery change slowly. The book also touches upon several subjects that were pertinent to the early 20th century and in some way and form remain relevant today – the projection of certain images for women in the society, gender politics, socialism and the role of Unions in taking care of their own etc. which add an additional layer of enrichment to the writing, making it both a deeply personal narrative and strong universal story at the same time.There are many many good things about the book, but the one that I feel is the primary achievement of this book was the sense of tenacity that comes out from all the characters and which I feel is the underlying theme of the book. The sense that if you hang on, just hang on, you will live one day and thrive! Whether, it is Francine’s conviction that one day, she will go to college and be a writer or her aunt’s Sissy’s firm belief that one day she will have a baby, despite 10 miscarriages. The book resounds with a sense of hope, especially stemming from education – the absolute faith that books and education are key to a better life and hold the promise of a brighter tomorrow. Grandma Rommely ensures, all her children except one can go to school atleast until the age of 14 and the three Rommely sisters, Katie, Sissy and Evy all in difficult circumstances are committed to the fact that their children will graduate from High School. This especially felt close to my heart – my parents filed for bankruptcy when I was very young and never really got ‘the groove’ back and it was a childhood of starvation on one too many nights and choice between fees for school or shoes to wear for school and of books which made those days pass. It was education and books that blocked out a lot of harsh reality, and instead allowed the mind to travels to far off places with many interesting companions. It was also that very hard earned education and books that sang of a promise that life will be better one day! To end this novel to me is a true testament on the power of books which has borne evidence through my own life!