I had to round out this week of childhood favorites with one I read over and over again, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, the story follows Francie Nolan through childhood and adolescence. Even though this book starts around the same time period and the protagonist is the same age as the Meet Samantha series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explores deeper issues like poverty, alcoholism, and the American Dream.
As a child, I loved Francie for the bookworm she was. Smith’s description of her first library card and her ritual of reading on the small fire escape captured my imagination.
“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 became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
When I first read the book, I saw a girl who idolized her father, clashed with her mother, and had the freedom to run around her Brooklyn neighborhood in ways I could only imagine from my place in the suburbs. As an adult, I read into the tragedy of a father who died of alcoholism, a mother who worked endlessly to make sure her family was cared for, and a girl who grew up all too quickly.
What Francie did for me, though was to normalize living in a world of books. I loved that this girl, who lived decades before me, could have that very same love as I did. I connected with her visits to the library, her eagerness for books and learning, and the desire to stretch beyond her neighborhood.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn taught me that, regardless of the specific books I read, the empathy and glimpse into a world beyond my own can give me the courage to act differently in my own life. Francie’s big move may have been to a different neighborhood but what I learned was that the foundation of imagination makes those moves possible. I wonder if I would have ended up in Paris without those faithful literary friends of my childhood? Did all my bookish habits give me the courage to move outside my comfort zone? According to Francie, I believe so.
I reread this book into my twenties as a comforting reminder that a foundation of reading can give us the courage to expand our horizons.
This post is Day 5 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.
2 thoughts on “The Courage to Expand Horizons”
You have shared another title I have always said I will read and never have. This is what I enjoy about these posts, they expand horizons and build the ever growing TBR pile. In my middle school years, my grandmother gave me a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silberstein. She said I would like it and thought I might put some of the poems to music. I read it and loved the piece the book was names for. I loved the imagery and the places it took me in my mind. It may have been a bit young for me, but it was a book I loved and still own. Somehow it has stayed with me.
“Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.”
I used to read a poem every day to my second grade class and we always started with that volume by Shel Silverstein. I love the depth and thoughtfulness “children’s” poetry offers.