A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This classic work from Betty Smith should be a must-read for anyone with command of the English language. Her brilliant portrayal of Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century is vivid, detailed, and somehow uplifting in its poverty. Frannie’s mother cleans homes to keep the family afloat while her charismatic father occasionally picks up singing waiter gigs and spends his tips on drink; the family plays a game they call North Pole Explorer where they have to subsist on whatever is in the cabinets for days, sometimes approaching utter starvation. Frannie and brother Neely collect junk and carefully count their pennies. The mom (who prefers Neely over Frannie) has an idea that education will get them out of poverty, so she makes the two of them read pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible every night, starting over again once they finish. Frannie says she prefers eating a raw potato to a raw apple?!

After the dad (Johnny) dies, Frannie must leave school to bring in money to help the family, including her pregnant mother. First employed in a factory making artificial flower stems, when that work dries up she lands a gig at a press clippings agency and later as a telegraph operator. There’s heartbreak and squalor and soaring spirits and everything in between, like Frannie’s life lessons of becoming a woman and her writing that sustains her (despite a teacher calling her stories “sordid” because the poverty was too realistic). Everything happy-endings as you would expect, with Frannie’s pretty mother remarrying an upstanding wealthy citizen and Frannie happily-ever-aftering herself into college at Univ of Michigan.