'Brooklyn' Renders an Imperfect World, Perfectly

Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, An Oscar, An Atomic Bomb and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother. A ventriloquist who used to perform at birthday parties, she now confines her voice solely to the printed page. hide caption

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When I was a child, the tangy, wet-mud smell of spring meant that it was almost time to pack up for my family's annual trip to La Pointe, Wis., a tiny town on a tiny island smack dab in Lake Superior. That's where I spent my summer vacations.

At least my body did.

My heart, however, was in Brooklyn, N.Y. Each year, from the time I was 11 until I was 17, my first stop in LaPointe was the library, a whitewashed clapboard building with a spiral staircase winding up into a steeple. At the top, in the fiction nook, I'd pull out a volume bound in library green with a gilt title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I may have been the only person who ever checked that book out, but I did so, religiously, every June.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, an odd, bookish little girl determined to become a writer — just as I was — except she was growing up in tenement squalor in the early part of the last century. But it's about so much more than that. It's about thriving despite injustice that's never rectified, meanness that's never punished, and love that goes sour. It's about Francie's parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. It's about wanting better for your children even as your every action ensures they won't get it. And it's about place, the warp and woof of pre-World War I Brooklyn depicted so vividly I could feel it from Chebomnicon Bay.

Unlike the reassuring books of early childhood, this one confirmed what, as a nearly teenaged girl, I'd come to suspect: Life's not fair, but you can survive it anyway. Francie saw that in the Tree of Heaven, from which the book takes it's title: It sprouts improbably in the cracked cement of the slums, thriving and growing lush despite utter neglect.

The book also bluntly wrestles with the peril and promise of a girl's sexuality. In one of those literary touchstone moments — which, along with Mary Ingall's blindness and Anne Frank's death, make a young reader realize that things that aren't supposed to happen sometimes do — Francie is nearly raped. Later, she watches as the neighborhood gossips fling stones at a teenager who dares to parade her illegitimate baby in public. Then, at age 16, Francie falls in love with a man she barely knows, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her, then leaves her. Francie asks her mother, Katie, whether she should have slept with him. Surprisingly, Katie says there are two truths, the truth of a mother, who would tell her daughter absolutely not, and the truth of a woman who would say...maybe, because she'd never love this way again.

I hadn't noticed that scene until my most recent rereading, after becoming a mother myself. Now it's the one I can't shake. I wonder: Was Katie right? What would I have said to Francie? What would I say to my own daughter? And when is it time to let a girl see the complex woman that lies behind the veil of maternal authority? Sixteen seems so young. But it was older then.

That's why I return again and again to this book. It's full of such moments, of people who live in the space between what is right and what is true, between ideals and necessity. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ends with Francie leaving her home, but who knows what she'll find in the foreign land of Ann Arbor, Mich.? Can she flourish outside of Brooklyn? Will she marry her new, dependable boyfriend for whom she feels no passion?

As she readies herself to go out, she spies a little girl across the courtyard, sitting on a fire escape as she herself once did, a book in her lap, peeping through the spiky leaves of the Tree of Heaven. She waves at the child, and calls, "Hello Francie."

And little girls like me, in libraries in small towns and big cities all over the world, wave back.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Chapter One

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan's house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had that same fine feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring

pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green,

indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of eld.

The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.

You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.

That was the kind of tree in Francie's yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire-escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire-escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That's what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.

Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late — until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o'clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o'clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

For Francie, Saturday started with the trip to the junkie. She and her brother, Neeley, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home slowly from school with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar. The junkie wouldn't take an unmelted ball of foil because too many kids put iron washers in the middle to make it weigh heavier. Sometimes Neeley found a seltzer bottle. Francie helped him break the top off and melt it down for lead. The junkie wouldn't buy a complete top because he'd get into trouble with the soda water people. A seltzer bottle top was fine. Melted, it was worth a nickel.

Francie and Neeley went down into the cellar each evening and emptied the dumbwaiter shelves of the day's accumulated trash. They owned this privilege because Francie's mother was the janitress. They looted the shelves of paper, rags and deposit bottles. Paper wasn't worth much. They got only a penny for ten pounds. Rags brought two cents a pound and iron, four. Copper was good — ten cents a pound. Sometimes Francie came across a bonanza: the bottom of a discarded wash boiler. She got it off with a can opener, folded it, pounded it, folded it and pounded it again.

Soon after nine o'clock of a Saturday morning, kids began spraying out of all the side streets on to Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. They made their slow way up the Avenue to Scholes Street. Some carried their junk in their arms. Others had wagons made of a wooden soap box with solid wooden wheels. A few pushed loaded baby buggies.

Francie and Neeley put all their junk into a burlap bag and each grabbed an end and dragged it along the street; up Manhattan Avenue, past Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg to Scholes Street. Beautiful names for ugly streets. From each side street hordes of little ragamuffins emerged to swell the main tide. On the way to Carney's, they met other kids coming back empty-handed. They had sold their junk and already squandered the pennies. Now, swaggering back, they jeered at the other kids.

"Rag picker! Rag picker!"

Francie's face burned at the name. No comfort knowing that the taunters were rag pickers too. No matter that her brother would straggle back, empty-handed with his gang and taunt later comers the same way. Francie felt ashamed.

Excerpted from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn © Copyright 2005 by Betty Smith. Reprinted with permission by Perennial Classics, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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