'Brooklyn' Renders an Imperfect World, PerfectlyAs a girl, Peggy Orenstein may have spent her summers in Wisconsin, but her heart was often farther east. She recounts her love for Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and its hard, touching lessons about the difference between what is right and what is true.
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.
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.