My cousin K. asked me in a recent e-mail if I'd ever read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I remembered that there'd been a movie by that name, but I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen it, and I was positive I'd never read the book. A favorite book of hers, it was written by Betty Smith and published mere months after I was born.
K. told me she'd read "Tree" for the first time at age 10 and several times since then. She said she was in the mood for it again and asked if I'd be interested in reading it at the same time. We could have our own book club via e-mail, she suggested. I agreed to give it a try, ordered the book, and started reading it at bedtime Saturday night.
In a word, wow! I feel like crying, not because of what was in the book, but because of what wasn't. I finished reading the book, but the book is clearly not finished with me. I want more pages, additional chapters. I want to know much more about what happened to these characters who etched themselves into my heart in approximately 500 pages.
The first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in the year 1912. About that same time, give or take a year, my grandmother's youngest siblings, Ruth and Loren, posed for this photo. They would have been only slightly younger than Francie and Neeley were, and I imagined, as I read, that the fictional kids in Brooklyn might have resembled these two Missouri kids.
The central character, Francie, was a book lover from an early age, as was I. I'd like to know if books continued to enrich her life as she aged beyond the pages of the story. And I wonder if Francie's first heartbreak made her forever cautious about falling in love. How many times did she give love a chance before she finally found it...or stopped looking?
Francie's younger brother, Neeley, was growing up into the physical image of his father by the end of the book. I'm under the impression that he became a stronger person than his father, but did he accede to his mother's wishes and become a doctor, or did he follow his own heart?
And what of their mother, Katie? She was a pragmatic and cynical young woman (much like my own mother). Did she soften as she grew older and her life became a little easier (much as my own mother did)?
I thought of my father (not the most responsible of young men) as I read. If he'd been around more in my early years, would his parenting style have resembled that of Francie and Neeley's father, Johnny (another not-so-responsible young man)? Would he have loved us more freely and indulgently than our mother did, because he had a wife and two children, while Mother (like Katie) had two children and a man-child to worry about? I think I understand both my parents better after reading this book.
By the final chapter, set in the fall of 1918, World War I had affected people in Brooklyn in much the same way it affected my Missouri ancestors. My grandfather, pictured here in his gas mask (no, I do NOT look just like him), went to fight in France. My grandmother found a job as a telephone operator. They wouldn't meet until 1919, after he came home. As I read this book, I began to imagine them as young people just beginning to make their own way in the world. I know how things turned out for them, but I wish I'd thought to ask them if things turned out the way they'd dreamed they would.
To my cousin K., I'd like to say thank you so much for recommending this book. It's amazing how relevant it is this many years after it was written. I'd also like to say that if you'll be so kind as to consider this blog entry part of our two-person-book-club discussion, then it's your turn now. Tell me what this book means to you.