52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith


Representative excerpt: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely, and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.” (p. 1)

I cite the opening line because it is a howler. That line is a smug author spending way too much time trying to find the perfect word to describe Brooklyn. Not to mention, she brings up Williamsburg as an exception and then forgets about it and goes back to Brooklyn at large. And the struggle to twist “Prairie” and “Shenandoah” into adjectives is painful. Starting a five-hundred-page novel by vacantly stating the time and place is bad enough; dragging it out like this just to fill space is unspeakable. Memo to authors: hooks are important, put the work into them. “Brooklyn was serene.” Isn’t that already much better? As it is, the first hundred pages or so of this “classic” are very reflective of its first paragraph. The characters are coming-of-age chicken stock: precocious protagonist, scrappy kid brother, well-meaning ne’er-do-well father, loving mother toughened by life, an extended family of one-notes, all together in a healthy swell of poverty porn. We get broken-record, winded descriptions of recipes and wardrobes, and an uninteresting extended flashback. If this is supposed to be Betty Smith’s autobiography and thus not fiction, then it is not infused with enough energy to make it seem a unique, original vision. Fortunately, after the needless flashback, the novel improves. There are some fascinating insights into vaccination, Tammany Hall politics, holiday traditions, World War One, and more—granted, Smith’s blunt efforts at sociology can lean towards the heavy-handed—and there’s a death in the family that hits rough. Through her alter ego Frances Nolan, Smith also offers us a passionate yet humble Künstlerroman—a subplot shedding light on her development as an artist, which has several points that are quite profound for a YA book, such as the relationship between fiction and untruth. But for all in the novel that resonated with me, the clanging failures of the opening chapters only served to draw my attention towards the scenes that rang false. Lowlights in the back half include a shameless promo for modern maternity wards, a too-easy deus ex machina out of the poverty (recall Fassbinder saying that fiction is not the appropriate place for revolution), and a schematic, clichéd back-to-the-beginning cycle-closer for an ending. Most readers hunting for gems are not going to dig as deep as I did through the manure. If the beginning and ending of your novel is not up to par, then the effort you put into the middle is simply not going to be worth it. Your tree will choke before it has the chance to blossom.

Grade: C+

What’s Next: Another escape-themed novel based on real life: Anna Seghers’ Transit, about WWII refugees in Marseille; shortly thereafter, Fifth Business.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith