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.
“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.