A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith

i’m surprised i never read this when i was younger, and reading it now, i wish i had read it then. it’s a coming-of-age story set in williamsburg (long before it was hip and fucked up) at the turn of the century. there are so many wonderful things about this book, even just the little details that are little asides from the story i assume are lifted from real life experiences. i’m pretty sure it was elissa who told me i should read this last summer when i’d just moved to brooklyn — i think because of the part about the piano left behind by its owners because it wouldn’t fit down the stairs.

the metaphor of the ailanthus (the tree) is the core of the book. apparently a lot of people didn’t appreciate Smith’s honest and upfront approach to the “sordid” topics of poverty and alcoholism; i wonder how much that has to do with her obvious personal insight and therefore the lack of condescension towards the characters.

i feel like there is so much i could say about this, but it’s hard to articulate it. this part near the end, a conversation during the first world war, caught my attention though:

“Send Francie. The last time I asked for sauerkraut he chased me out of the store,” complained Neeley.
“You’ve got to ask for Liberty Cabbage now, you dope,” said Francie.
“Don’t call each other names,” chided Katie absentmindedly.
“Did you know they changed Hamburg Avenue to Wilson Avenue?” asked Francie.
“War makes people do funny things,” sighed Katie.

“liberty cabbage”?! i guess i’m not surprised it’s true (they also renamed dachshunds “liberty hounds”), though it does make the whole “freedom fries” episode that much more ridiculous.