From August 2012 through July 2013, I lived in Brooklyn with a woman I would end up marrying just under two years after we left New York. I had a scraggly beard and greasy hair and worked for a “New Media” company with offices in the East Village. Our apartment was filled with furniture that Franny found on the street, carried up the stairs of our third-floor walk-up, and completely re-made into something new. Money was always tight but we had great friends with whom we would go drinking on the weekends. Our life was just so Brooklyn, in the 21st century caricature of Brooklyn as a place where white gentrifiers from outside New York live and party when they’re not at their Manhattan-based tech, media, or finance jobs.
Like any place that has, inevitably, changed over the many generations since it was founded, the Brooklyn that we inhabited was the evolution of the legendary and historic Brooklyns of the past — legendary and historic Brooklyns that in some places continued to exist and thrive at the same time they were being displaced and/or appropriated by newcomers like me. It’s a city of over two and a half million that has existed for hundreds of years, so these historic and legendary Brooklyns are innumerable. They include the Brooklyns of Spike Lee, Biggie Smalls, Mos Def, and Jay Z, as well as the Brooklyns of the Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, Mel Brooks, and Jimmy Durante. They also include the Brooklyn of Betty Smith, the Williamsburg-born author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
We got a copy of her landmark 1943 novel the way we got so many books and records during our year in Brooklyn: from a sidewalk near our apartment, after somebody had put a stack of books and magazines outside for the taking. I didn’t actually read it until this January, nearly four and a half years after we left Kings County.
Over the years, my wife has repeatedly encouraged me to read it, always saying, “It’s so good. Nothing really happens, but it’s so good.” This sentiment is affirmed in Anna Quindlen’s foreward to the edition we own. Quindlen writes, “In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens. Of course, that’s not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens, from birth and death to marriage and bigamy.” But the novel–containing, as it does, all the things that elevate our existence on this earth to a vibrant, dynamic life–is paced just like real life is.
Things do happen in this book. We meet its main character, Francie as an 11-year-old and follow her for just six years, up until she prepares to board a train to go to Michigan for college at 17. She lives a real and full human life in pre-World War I Brooklyn, surrounded by people who are, at once, fully-fledged humans and also quintessentially Brooklyn archetypes. Her experience is shaped by her alcoholic, singing-waiter father (Irish, of course), her hard-working, rarely-emoting mother (a second-generation German, of course), and the rest of her family, comprising aunts and uncles and siblings and grandparents. The family moves, people are born and others die, and through it all Francie navigates a changing and exciting and sometimes dangerous world. We see her make friends and lose them, make mistakes and hurt people, and get hurt by others.
In taking such a “slow, sure, meandering” approach to telling Francie’s story, as Quindlen puts it in the foreward, Smith genuinely evokes the experience of coming up in this very particular time and place. (Unsurprisingly, the book takes place in the same neighborhood Smith grew up in, Williamsburg, and Francie is only six years younger than the author.) As particular events unfold, we read them in exquisite, enthralling detail; the book, despite its “slow, sure meandering” storytelling, moves quickly. We see these events as Francie herself does, through the eyes of a child as she grows into an adult. But she is not simply an observer telling us what is going on around her. Like any person, she has to act upon the world around her, navigating the treacheries of life in a relatively-poor household in an American city in the early 20th century while doing the things that 11- to 17-year-old girls do and have always done.
Smith’s storytelling style forces us to see everything that happens in the book as a discrete event with immediate importance, but with so much happening, there is a cumulative effect wherein we see all these events and all of Francie’s actions not just as individual things but also as the pieces that are sewn together into the overall fabric of Francie’s life. And not just her life: This is the fabric that makes up life in the Brooklyn that Betty Smith knew. It’s a Brooklyn she has both fictionalized and vivified, allowing us to experience it just as Francie did–and as Smith herself may have–over a century ago.
As an imperfect, relatable, and talented human being, Francie Nolan is one of my favorite protagonists from any book I’ve read. As a dazzling, detailed, and illustrative look at life in an historic version of a city I once lived in and loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time.