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  • Jessica Ritchie

Showing Gratitude: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I know a lot of people who never read the same book twice; I’m not one of them. My favorite books draw me back like my favorite people, and the book I’ve revisited the most is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

I was introduced to the novel in my sophomore English class. It wasn’t assigned reading. I never had to write a paper about it and there were no quizzes on the storyline. Instead, once a week, our teacher perched on a stool and read to us for an hour. Having a teacher read to me for no other reason than to tell me a story seemed a little absurd, but I loved it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the story of Francie Nolan, a little girl growing up in a tenement neighborhood in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Francie is painfully shy and introverted, and acutely aware of her own awkwardness and shortcomings. I related to her immediately.

Francie’s life changes on the day she realizes she can read. Books become her escape; when she’s reading, she isn’t lonely. She’s not the daughter of an alcoholic, the less favored child of her mother, or the little girl who has to let the junk man pinch her cheek for an extra penny because she needs the money. She’s a friend of the characters and a part of their adventure. Reality limits Francie’s choices and experiences. But in books, her possibilities are endless. I couldn’t relate to Francie’s exact circumstances, but I wholeheartedly understood her coping mechanism.

The novel follows Francie’s life from ages eleven to seventeen, with a few flashbacks to her parents’ early lives and marriage. The Nolan family faces poverty, addiction, gut-wrenching loss, and painful realities. Francie realizes at an early age that she’s handicapped by her poverty and gender. She also realizes that an education is her only shot at overcoming both, and she takes it upon herself to get the best she can. She makes the best of difficult circumstances, but never accepts them as permanent and never stops working toward the life she wants, no matter what obstacles get in her way.

Like Francie, I’ve always been the girl who retreats into books. Since before I can remember, they’ve been my armor against everything from boredom to sometimes-paralyzing social anxiety. Listening to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn changed the way I view myself more than any other book ever has. Francie taught me that it’s okay to be quiet. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay if the life you want for yourself looks nothing like the one that’s expected of you and, ultimately, the only opinion that matters is your own. Francie taught me and generations of other readers that it's okay if other people don't like or understand you, as long as you like and understand yourself.

Francie’s lessons came to me at the time of my life I most needed them. I will always be thankful for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and for the teacher who slowed down once a week to read it to me, for no other reason than to tell me the story.

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