A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have the choice.” ~ Dalai Lama

This spring is the fifth anniversary of beginning this blog. During the winter, I felt like my posts were getting stale and repetitious. I was considering giving up on it. I struggled with what to do, when I got the inspiration to write about two things I love, movies and books, I felt energized and inspired. There are so many great stories to explore.

Today’s post is about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith It’s a movie I almost always seem to catch in the middle, but it’s so compelling I watch to the end. I finally got to see it from the beginning recently and that’s when I remembered I’ve had the book on a shelf for a long time.

I love the Nolan family because I can relate to many aspects of their life. Katie and Johnny Nolan are children of immigrants living in Brooklyn. It’s the beginning of the 20th century. They’re poor, however, they are fortunate to have had some education allowing them to get a pretty good job. Even so, life becomes more complicated when the children begin to arrive.

The story is told from their oldest daughter, Francie’s point of view. She dearly loves her idealistic and imaginative father, as does everyone else, even though he’s an alcoholic and has a difficult time finding work because of it. Her mother, the practical one, keeps the roof over their heads by exchanging her cleaning services for rent. Francie and her brother Neeley do what they can to earn small amounts of money here and there to contribute to the family coffers.

Francie sees her broken down neighborhood as an enchanted place, in spite of the mean children and teachers at school. I love her because she’s unconventional, a dreamer, and bit of a loner like me. She loves reading, is a good writer, and has a fierce desire to improve her self through learning. In fact she and her father contrive to get her into a better school not far from her home.

One segment in the book, that is not in the movie, deeply affected me. Francie and Neeley have been invited to a party or pageant for poor children during the Christmas holidays at a nearby Protestant church. At the end of the program it’s announced there is one last treat. A young girl named Mary, comes out with a beautiful large doll which she is going to give to a girl in the audience also named Mary. Francie desperately wants the doll. She’s never had one of her own. Even though the peer pressure to remain silent is strong, Francie can’t resist. Thinking she’s lying, she says her name is “Mary Frances Nolan.” The doll is given into Francie’s waiting arms.

As she walks back to her seat, the mistress of ceremonies expounds about the generosity of little rich Mary who is willing to give away her doll in true generosity. Francie blinks back tears thinking “Why can’t they just give the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich? Why couldn’t they give it away without talking about it?” I was asking the same question. Though we were not as poor as Francie’s family, there were times when I was given something in the same spirit as the doll was given to Francie. It’s humiliating.Why do some of the more fortunate people want to make sure the less fortunate are grateful for their charity. To me it should be given freely, even anonymously.

Interestingly, the other poor girls exact their revenge on Francie as she walks back to her seat by whispering, “Beggar, beggar, beggar,” as if upholding their pride is better than trying get something they really want.

The only thing Francie regrets about getting the doll is lying about her name. Knowing that her mother hates anything that smacks of charity, Francie tells her that the doll was a prize. Neeley keeps her secret. Francie, fearing she’s going to hell for lying, suddenly remembers something important. Her confirmation is coming up soon and she decides then and there to choose Mary as her middle name so that the lie will become the truth. When she asks her mother if she may choose Mary as her middle name, her mother says “No. … when you were christened, you were named Francie after Andy’s girl … but you were also named Mary after my mother. Your real name is Mary Frances Nolan. When I read that, I felt as Francie did, that God had given her a special gift. In a way it was an affirmation that her dreams could come true.

Even though there are bright spots in the story like getting the doll, Francie begins to truly understand the struggles her parents go through. As she gets closer to graduation from eighth grade, her father’s condition gets worse. He’s out of work most of the time, which means meals are infrequent. When Katie announces that a third baby is on the way, Johnny tries to quit drinking cold turkey so he can work but It’s too late. He dies of liver failure and pneumonia leaving the family in dire circumstances.

Though Johnny was incapable of providing for his family in life, they learn something remarkable about him. He had lots of friends. And it’s one of those friends, Mr. McGarrity who comes to the family’s rescue. He owns the bar where Johnny hung out. Even though Johnny owed him money, he misses his stories, as do his other patrons, so he hires Francie and Neeley to do odd jobs so he can help the family make ends meet.

I think one of the things that makes this story timeless is the love the Nolans have for each other in spite of their failings and circumstances. They also have a deep conviction that life is going to get better. Katie is the driving force behind this. When she discovers she is pregnant with Francie, this is in the book not the movie, she asks her mother for advice. And her mother, who can’t read, says that the family should read together every night. So Katie gets a Bible and an old copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and she begins reading to her babies. When they get older, they read and by the time the children go to school, they already have quite an education. It’s one of the little things that makes the Nolan family different than most of their neighbors.

In the end, Katie’s determination to make their lives better pays off. She marries a kind and loving police officer who knows how the family has struggled. Both Neeley and Francie get to go to college. It’s the perfect story of a poor family making their dreams come true by steadfastly loving each other, dreaming of a better life, and being willing to work hard to get it.

Thanks for reading, liking and commenting on my posts. I hope you’ll consider checking out A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think it will be well worth your time.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018

Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. I you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.

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