a tree grows in brooklyn review

In my efforts to read more modern classic literature, I picked up a copy of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith. An enormous coming-of-age novel, it covers every aspect of life, including death, love, birth, and the power of reading.

First of all I wanted to say that for most of the novel, I was convinced that it focused on an African-American family. I just could not picture the Nolan family as white. That may have affected my reading a bit, as I was expecting commentary on racial issues, which it sorely lacked. The novel does, however, talk very frankly about classism and migration, which I found RIDICULOUSLY pertinent. It sensitively portrays the oppression that Irish and German migrants faced when they moved to America in the 1800s. Nothing is sugar-coated, and the reader cannot look away as Francie, the protagonist, is routinely under-estimated by society as a whole. The sense of injustice is palpable – it made me want to leap up and shout to the world about how powerful a young woman can be.

Speaking of which, the women in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ are fabulous. They’re complex: they work hard for their children, but they can be awfully selfish. They expect more from other women, because they know first-hand how tough they can be. They’re single mothers and thrice-divorced and religious and uneducated and tough. Much like a Jane Austen heroine, none of the men in this book deserved them.

I wish I’d read this when I first heard of it. I was around 15, and I came across the line: ‘The world was hers for the reading’. It spoke to me then, and although it still does now, I think that teenage me would have got more out of it.

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into modern classics, and have been thoroughly persuaded that this is a genre that I will really enjoy.


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