Our connoisseurs of fine lit experienced a rather startling moment when, earlier this year, it was discovered that neither of us had read the American classic (and possible Great American Novel) A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith. ”You gotta get on that,” they said in unison. And on it we got it. And thank God it wasn’t another classic of the Melvillesque kind. 

TreeLara: Okay, so I super loved this book and can’t believe I hadn’t read it earlier. I don’t consider myself a victim, but I kind of blame my teachers for not assigning this for me to read. What gives? Wait, before I cast stones, I better make sure it wasn’t a book I was supposed to read and I just didn’t. How on earth had you—a much more vociferous reader than I—not read this book either?

Jennifer: Vociferous? I am impressed. Me, vociferous? Damn straight. Well, my guess is that I missed it as a young person because it’s big, and I missed it as an old person because it was written in 1943.

Lara: Coming in at almost 500 pages, it is a bit off-putting. I am glad I read it now and did so with my Kindle – the book’s heft wasn’t an issue.

As for you being vociferous? Hells, yeah! And that’s what I liked about ATGIB, it’s a classic that makes me want to use fancy five-dollar words to describe it—it deserves that. Yet Smith follows the advice we have all heard regarding good writing—she tells a multi-layered, coming-of-age story without any pomp or circumstance, and the result is just lovely. I mean look at this:

“Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day.”

Jennifer: I think this book can be looked at—and promoted—on many different levels. It is, of course, a coming-of-age story. You know that label, that lovely and ubiquitous label used to entice readers? It is also a New York story, and I love me a New York story. (Which reminds me: would someone hire me to teach a college class on the New York story?) For me, however, it is primarily a story of an artist, a girl who will grow up to write. (Another parenthetical statement here: our next Snotty Literati endeavor is Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I think is also about the plight of the artist.)

Go with me on this: my Love Slave is a contemporary ATGIB. Okay, I just had to say that. Now that I got it out of the way, I won’t say it again.

What do you think about this centrality of the artist thing?

Lara: Francie Nolan, our protagonist, definitely envisions herself an artist, and she’s an artist in-the-making from very early on, making a weekly trek to the library in hopes of reading every book there, in alphabetical order. She’s a lover of books and creativity, and she is interested in making more of herself than the blue collar, immigrant women who raised her. She’s tenacious about this—refusing to give up—even when she’s forced to drop out of school to help the family, while her younger and less intellectual brother Neely is allowed to stay enrolled.

I don’t think I have answered your question. So I will say that I think Smith is making a strong statement for the importance of art (and education) in our lives as a means of escape and advancement. It’s a necessity.

Jennifer:  I’m especially interested in how an artist is defined, where the compulsion, the instinct, the personality, the whatever originates. Why was this little girl born to her future? There are many great books on this topic, ranging from James Joyce’s not-gonna-ever-read-this-one-again Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to one of my very favorites, Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.

Okay, so here, in this wondrous book, the origins are present in the genes, so to speak:

“Those Rommely women had a weakness for any kind of man who was by way of being a creator or a performer. Any kind of musical, artistic or story-telling talent was wonderful to them and they felt it their duty to nurture and guard these things.”

But there’s more to it than a proclivity to love the artistic equivalent of a bad boy. There is also another family proclivity: it’s the element of suffering. Katie Rommely thinks to herself that her husband “wasn’t put together for suffering but she was.” She “had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny [Katie’s husband and Francie’s alcoholic father] had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer.” These are Francie’s parents. Perhaps they speak of the origins of the artist: suffering plus a hankering—a longing—for immortality. Or to put it another way: the artist is born from the embrace between pain and the everlasting, the eternal, the abiding. Of course, the sufferer and the useless dreamer gave birth to the writer.

Vociferous Me!

So, here we have an ordinary story about a little girl growing up in Brooklyn—but there’s so much more.

Lara: Your insigt is spot-on, Jennifer. And you are right, there is so much more to this story. It’s a story of race, class, religion. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism and anti-immigration in 1940s New York. There’s also a lot of inner fighting between the women. I was really moved by a part of the story where Francie watches as a young woman, who had a baby out of wedlock, is ridiculed by the neighborhood women when she’s out talking a walk with her baby. The women are brutal, hurling horrible insults at Joanna (insults that I thought didn’t go back to the forties!). Then they start hurling rocks and one such rock actually hits the infant.

“Some of the stones hit Joanna but a sharp pointed one missed and struck the baby’s forehead. Immediately, a tin clear trickle of blood ran down the baby’s face and spotted its clean bib. The baby whimpered and held out its arms for its mother to pick up… They had not wanted to hurt the baby. They had only wanted to drive Joanna off the street… And Francie had seen it all; had seen it all. She had heard every word. She remembered how Joanna had smiled at her and how she had turned her head away without smiling back. Why hadn’t she smiled back? Why hadn’t she smiled back? Now she would suffer—she would suffer all the rest of her life every time that she remembered she had not smiled back.”

I can imagine this was powerful when the book came out, but it’s equally powerful now in the way that so many women treat one another horrible, the act of bullying and a missed opportunity for kindness. Heartbreaking and commonplace, unfortunately.

Jennifer: Oh, yes. The role of women in this book is also something worth examining—how women are managing their plights in relation to one another and in relation to the men in their lives. (Plus, note Francie’s acute awareness of suffering in the above passage.)

I’ll move off the writer/artist subject in one second. I just love how this novel reveals the development of her personality. Francie’s writing flair shows in school. Though the talent is noted, she is also admonished by teachers for her choice of topics: “But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.” This gives Francie pause. Francie’s teacher continues: “One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.” This compels Francie to ask, “What is beauty?”

The thing about this book is that the Brooklyn of pre-WWII America was not terribly beautiful in the way that Francie’s well-meaning teacher meant—but Brooklyn was, in fact, beautiful to Francie and her story is beautiful. In this book, this epic book, Francie tries to answer this question: What is beauty?

I think our reader-friends should set aside their anxiety over its length and its detail, because this book is intimate too. The detail allows for engagement. We are involved in these people’s lives. Something we might also touch upon, if you’d like, is its Americanness?

Lara: Smith places as much focus on beauty as she does art. Her focus on beauty, what it is, where you find it (you find it everywhere, I tell you. Everywhere) is central for Francie. Her life, while ugly and sordid to her teacher, is her life and in it she finds beauty. I love this.

I think the book is a perfect consideration for The Great American Novel, if there is such a thing. Certainly there isn’t only one. But with this story you get so much of what we think about when we think about America—a love for family, country, and going after your dreams. Parents who want better for their children and those children going after it. You also get the pain and strife that we have already talked about. But the themes in ATGIB are much more universally American than say Moby Dick.  Don’t you think?

Jennifer: Well, I’m with you on Moby—though I still feel some guilty about owning up to it. I’m not sure, however, that love of country is what makes the Great American Novel distinctly American. You know I can get pretty weird on you here. I think the Great American Novel (and you’re right: there must be more than one) asks, either implicitly or explicitly, the following question: what does it mean to be American? Or what is the American experience? And—if we identify the American experience—we might add this question: how is the American experience universal?

Rather than trying to answer those questions—though I’d certainly like to try—it’s probably sufficient to say that Smith does tackle these questions. This is one of the appeals of the novel: the Brooklyn neighborhood feels like the world. Francie’s search for self is a universal search.

Lara: You nailed it. There’s really nothing more than that, and that’s what makes this book so good. Just read it, everyone. Read it again, read it for the first time. Just read it.

Jennifer: Young Adults, read this, okay?

Lara: Definitely, YA folks. Make it required reading for yourself.

Next up, we are convening over Maria Semple’s wickedly clever Where’d You Go, Bernadette.


Can’t get enough of Snotty Literati? Follow us on Facebook!

Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com