I recently finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. From Goodreads:
The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years.
I'm not gonna lie...I thought I'd never finish this book. Maybe it was because I've become accustomed to reading fast-paced thrillers and YA. Maybe it was because the point of view hopped from head to head. Or maybe it's because this book was originally published in 1943, when authors could take their time telling quieter stories. Whatever the reason, I'm so glad I stuck with it and finished. It was a wonderful story.
Despite the generation gap, I learned many writing lessons from this book. Here are a few:
- Story world, no matter how small, feels big to the main character. Francie Nolan lived in Brooklyn, and although bodies of water weren't far away, she didn't see the ocean until she stood on a rooftop at 13 years old. Her world consisted of different neighborhoods within Brooklyn, and the shops, tenements, and people that populated it.
- Draw from our own unique experiences. At the back of the book, there was a section that discussed the author and how she'd grown up in Brooklyn, much like her main character. I wasn't surprised to learn this. Betty Smith created rich character and setting details from her memories. The poverty, the struggle to survive, the neighborhood politics--this was all beautifully and painfully memorialized by an author who had lived through what her main character was living through.
- Choose a symbol to represent the main character. A sturdy tree grows deep roots. It has strength and perseverance even in the harshest conditions. So did Francie Nolan, the main character. I loved the parallels between the strong symbol and the equally strong main character.
- Memorable characters have quirky and/or distinctive details. Francie's aunt called her boyfriends or husbands "Johnny," no matter what their real names were. Francie's father was mellow when he was drunk, and boisterous when sober. Her mother spoke the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Her uncle considered himself a failure, became a one-man band, and ran away from his family. These unique details had staying power, and added to the richness of the book.
- Create a strong visual where the character realizes there's more to life than what they've known. From the rooftop, Francie finally saw the river and wondered what excitement lay across the bridge. While venturing into another neighborhood, she saw a nicer school and conspired with her father to attend this school. This showed her there were other attainable goals she could reach. The reader experiences these wonders along with Francie, and we root for her to branch out and see more of the world.
I'm glad I won my battle with my short attention span and finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It's one of those memorable stories I'll always carry with me.
Have you read this book? What was your impression? And if you're read any of the classics, which one is your favorite?