Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith has become a well-respected classic since it was published in 1943 by Harper & Brothers.  Many erudite readers have reviewed A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.  In fact, when I looked at today, there were 582 customer reviews.  Given this intimidating number and in fear of repeating what has already been said, I would like to open up this review to a discussion about what makes a book a classic, and from this review and its comments, determine, according to our humble opinions, whether A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a classic.  And as a by-product of our classical conversation, perhaps an extended communal review will develop as well.

Of course, what makes a book a classic cannot be precisely defined.  The following thoughts do not by any means exhaust the subject. Also, varying opinions about what makes a classic inevitably exist.  Questions will most likely lead to more questions and answers will lead to more answers.

Originally, a classic work of art meant a creation from the Ancient Greek or Roman eras.  A classic book was written in Greek or Latin.  The concept now includes many other ideas.  Here are some aspects of what makes a work a classic that I have found during this brief morning of considering the topic.  A bullet form list follows rather than prose paragraphs in the interest of covering as many characteristics in a short space and time period.  In addition, it seems not all "classics" will have all the possibilities below.  And one aspect sometimes blends into or leads to another.

  • Universality - univeral truths, ideas of beauty, life, themes, crosscultural
  • Timelessness - enjoyed by more than one generation, people of all eras can relate to the work of art, stands the test of time, continues to influence readers
  • Memorable Characters - "real" people
  • Adaptability to other Media - made into a movie perhaps
  • Re-readability - can the same person read it over and over throughout his or her life and gather new meaning
  • Incredible Quality - beautiful language, artistic quality, poetic, plot, characterization
  • Uniqueness - the first of its kind, truly original, something different about it, novelty
  • Connection to Heritage of Humanity - history of ideas, legacy of literature, myth, speaks to us as humans
  • Moral Lessons - learning values, teachers and professors assign work as part of reading list to learn
  • Instant Classic or Not Recognized in its Time
  • Believabilty - not the question of could this really happen, but is the work real or can it suspend believability without effort
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, according to my reading, has all of the above qualities.  The clearest universal theme centers around growing up, moving from a child into adulthood, or coming of age, all critical times during which a young girls finds out not only what it means to be a woman, but also what it means to be human.  The universal themes lead to the book's timelessness.  An 11 year old girl, a hardworking parent, or an alchoholic person with overwhelming responsibility from many eras could glean meaning from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.  Another universal theme is growing into old age and the fear that we will do this entirely ungracefullly, a fear that transcends generations, eras, and cultures.

Francie and each member of her family are described in much detail from varying characters' points of view.  The people in her neighborhood such as the shopkeepers are also unforgettable (in the true sense of the word) "characters."  I was surprised that this work was produced as a movie in 1945 only two years after Harper & Brothers published it. Is this a sign of an instant classic in the 1940's?  Perhaps. I found out that the movie is available on DVD.  Netflix here I come.

Betty Smith's attention to detailed descriptions brings vivid images to a reader's mind.  Smith brings Brooklyn to life with language that is beautiful in its directness and accuracy.  She doesn't spend too much time bringing a reader into the scene with overly florid or sentimental phrases.  The language used in the characters' dialogue expresses their personalities, some practical and some dreamy.

The uniqueness of this book appears in its gritty and uncomfortable scenes.  Little Women, another novel/memoir about a young girl coming of age, doesn't delve into the dark side of life as does A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.  Although Little Women was published around 75 years earlier, less than pristine circumstances did exist at that time.  From what I know about the 19th Century, these occurrences just were not discussed openly in literature or society in the mid-1800's.  Louisa May Alcott describes sad and troubled times in Little Women, but no profound experiences with crime, shame, poverty, or sexual scandal.  A Tree Grows In Brooklyn grapples with "dirty," difficult subjects in an unflinching, non-melodramatic manner leading the way for The Diary of Anne Frank, another "frank," realistic memoir of a young girl growing into womanhood published four years later.

From my experience, the reader learns moral values right along with Francie.  I have also heard teachers and professors have included this title as required reading for English courses.


  1. This is a very well-written review. I enjoyed _A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_ very much, and I appreciate your exploration of what makes a book a classic. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for commenting Ellen. I was hoping someone would actually read this review.