Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Most of us have heard of this 1943 novel by Betty Smith, which details the struggles of a young girl and her family in Williamsburg during the period surrounding World War I. If you haven't read it now is the time to do so. Not only is ATGIB a great novel (IMHO), but it provides a great deal of information as to how working class families lived during that era. Indeed, one reason why I decided to re-read the book was to learn about the world which my Italian immigrant ancestors inhabited during the same time frame.

The Williamsburg in which Francie Nolan (the central character) and her family lived and worked is not the trendy, gentrified area we know of today, but rather a collection of immigrant enclaves (some with un-PC nicknames such as "Jew Town") where Life was a daily struggle and Death a regular visitor. Anyone hoping for nostalgia would be most disappointed by Smith's work. But the Nolans, like our ancestors, managed to survive and maintain their dignity.

Some people have described ATGIB as an "Oprah" book, perhaps meaning that it was both written from a woman's perspective and is somewhat optimistic in tone. In that sense, they're right, although it most certainly is not a work full of "affirmations" or other staples of "human potential" literature. People like the Nolans were pragmatists above all else.

If you like audio books, I suggest's edition of ATGIB, which is terrific.

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At 7:54 PM , Blogger Irving Douglas Estella said...

I read ATGIB a couple of years ago and discovered there a world of a wonderful portrayal of an era and a family caught up in it. Smith magically conjures up the smells, tastes, sweat, and feelings of Williamsburg a century ago with lyrical beauty and unsentimental prose. Each chapter begins with the author's fine narrative which becomes music by chapter's end folding into the movements of a great symphony that is the novel.


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