A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) is a well-known novel that manages to get on everyone’s reading list at some point. I only just finished reading it a couple days ago, and I suspect it would have been one of the iconic books of my childhood had I read it as a child.
It’s a coming-of-age novel (or “bildungsroman,” if you prefer that pretentious-sounding word) that doesn’t have much in the way of real conflict or true antagonists. Our heroine, Francie Nolan, comes out just fine at the end—a powerful young woman with her whole life ahead of her—and that’s to be expected. The book’s conflict was growing up and finding your own place and way in the world, and the entire time I was reading the book, I was really rooting for Francie, who was a relatable character to a bookish nerd like me.
The book’s main strength was its descriptions of Brooklyn: the people, the culture, the time period (1900s and 1910s), and the general way of the world. Children grew up fast in those days, and they were sent to play in the streets at the ages of 4 and 5, something that would be considered child abuse today. Because children grew up so fast, they attained the quality known as “grit,” which is apparently something children and young adults in the modern age don’t have or are very slow to attain.
I found it interesting that back in those days, once you graduated from elementary school at the age of 14 or so, you were essentially all set for life as an adult. High school was a privilege for some, and college was for the elite or the very highly motivated. Now high school is mandatory, and teenagers are being essentially forced to go to college whether it’s the right choice for them or not.
The most striking difference between the reality of 100 years ago depicted in the book versus today’s reality is community. Connections among family members and friends were deep and deeply valued. People spoke to each other face to face because there was no other way, and in doing so, they created a community in which people looked out for each other. We still have community in modern times, but it’s getting increasingly rare in a world that is bound by the connections of phones and Internet rather than face-to-face socializing.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made me think about how much the world can change in 100 years—basically a person’s lifetime. So now I’m thinking about how quaint 2016 will seem to a person looking at it from 2116… and what kinds of connections will be lost or gained.