Set during the span of 1901 to 1918, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming of age story of a young girl, Francie. While Francie is like many of the other children in her neighborhood in terms of extreme poverty, it immediately becomes clear that Francie is special–she has a desire to make meaning out of her life and move beyond her situation to live out her dreams. The tree that grows outside of the tenement which she lives in becomes a symbol of Francie’s life–so unlikely that something can grow on so little but surely does.
Much of this book is a description of the daily lives of Francie and her younger brother Neeley and the struggles that they endure with a drunk father, a mother who works herself to the bone, and the fact that they can rarely make ends meet. In some respects it reminded me a lot of Angela’s Ashes, but I really grew to love Francie’s spirit and sheer determination to learn all that she can and change her situation. Throughout all of this she is challenged by her peers, her teachers, and even her family; Francie sometimes looses hope, gives up on God, and becomes utterly discouraged, but she proves to be a fighter. In a way it was a good change to read about the lifestyle that Francie grew up in since it seems that so many of the books I have read in this period focus mostly on the well-to-do, educated upper classes. It served as an important reminder that the most crucial part of the early twentieth century for many Americans was not finding the perfect mate.
For the most part I enjoyed the book and the story, but really I felt it was too long. The book covers 17 years (well, a little more if you count the time devoted to the courting of Francie’s parents), and while I think that the length of time covered was perfect there were a lot of extraneous details that could have been either briefly covered or left out. Ha ha, I feel like I am not doing this book justice by writing only a few little paragraphs and not even giving any details but there is just so much! Most everything that happens in the book helps shape Francie’s character and although at times her growth was not easy to recognize (maybe because the book was so drawn out!), I really loved how everything fit together at the end of the novel.
This book was actually a selection for a first book club meeting (IRL) and am hoping it will be a good one for discussion. There are certainly a ton of different themes that are explored in the book including, of course, poverty, religion, work ethics/unions, class systems, love and male-female relationships, family life, etc etc. Does anyone have any suggestions for a successful face-to-face book discussion?? Are there things that have worked well in your IRL book clubs that you could pass on to a newbie?? I’d love to hear any suggestions you can throw my way.