Books I’ve Loved: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I realized a little while ago that I haven’t posted very much at all here about writing and reading — which are two things I love, of course! I’ve always been a big reader, ever since I first read a Dick and Jane book by myself (true story) at four years old.

So. Today, I’m gonna start blogging more frequently. About the things that brought me to writing, my writing process, some books that influenced me along the way, and hell — anything else that strikes my fancy. I’m going to start letting readers peek into my world a little more often, too.

The first book I want to talk about is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s a book you may or may not have heard of. It came out in 1943, but it’s set in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, in New York (well, Williamsburg, Brooklyn). It’s one of the first books I can remember having a very profound personal impact on me.

I read this book for the first time the summer I was eleven years old. By total coincidence, that’s how old the main character, Francie, is at the beginning of the story. Francie and I, despite the fact that she lived in Brooklyn and I lived in a town of less than 3,000 people in western Iowa, had a surprising number of things in common. Francie didn’t really have any friends, for one, which resonated painfully with me.  I had just moved to that small town with my parents, and school hadn’t even started yet. I was an only child, so I spent that summer essentially alone, with only books to keep me company.

Francie was also a huge bookworm, like me. She went to the local branch of her library almost every day, and pored over the stacks like her life depended on the decision she was about to make. Her goal was one day to read every book in her library. For that reason, she always chose one “for pleasure” book, and then one book that was literally the next in line in the stacks (she started at the very beginning). She was shy, and her librarian often questioned or tried to dissuade her from checking a particular book out. But Francie always held firm.

My “library story” about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one that always makes me feel a special kinship with Francie. You see, I, too, went to my local library almost every day. And one day, completely by chance, I happened to pick up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I didn’t know what it was about, but by opening it at random a few times and skimming some paragraphs, I was convinced it looked very interesting. I took the book up to the counter and presented my library card. The librarian looked at the title, and then at me, and told me sternly that this book was “too old” for me, and that she would not allow me to check it out.

Bewildered, I trudged back home, and happened to tell my mother about what happened. My mother was a great lover of reading herself, and believed firmly that I should be allowed to read whatever I wanted. She called the library, asked to speak to the librarian, and told her in no uncertain terms that I was to be allowed to check out whatever book I wanted, with no questions asked.

I returned to the library, checked out A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and there began a virtual kinship across time, space, and pages between young, lonely Francie and young, lonely Daphne that I still feel today.

It’s true, the book has some tough, even adult, themes that were new and troubling to me as a precocious eleven year-old girl. But the lessons and compassion I learned from it were invaluable. Thanks, Mom, for being in my corner, because without you I might never have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? What’s a book you’ve loved that made a difference in your life?

 


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