I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last month. A quick plot summary: Francie Nolan is a little girl growing up in the slums of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. She lives with her little brother, Neely, her mother, Katie, a woman of “soft ways and invisible steel” and her sweetly charming and drunken father, Johnny. “Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well” (p. 97).
As you might imagine, the world of little Francie is particularly bleak. Unlike her little brother, whom she dearly loves, she is not the darling of her mother’s eye, and she always knows it. She adores her father, though, and he dotes on her in return, through all his inebriate tremblings and insufficiencies. She knows she should be ashamed of him, for the neighborhood knows he is a drunk, and so she loves him all the more fiercely and devotedly. The teachers at her first school are indifferent or unkind, and, because she is a rather strange little girl, she never has a true friend among all the neighborhood children. There are many days with no food, and, when they have it, the bread is always stale and the meat is always paltry.
There are so many things I’d like to share with you from this novel—it’s one of the books to read with a pencil in your hand. One of my favorite passages is just after Francie is born. Her mother realizes how hard their lives will be and so asks her own mother what on earth she can do to make her children’s lives better than her own. Her mother is an illiterate Austrian immigrant, married to a backwards tyrant, but is, nonetheless, a widely-acknowledged saint and wise woman who has raised to adulthood four of her seven children. Look at pages 51-55 for that scene. As far as I can tell, that’s the best guide to child-rearing I have ever yet seen. Another good passage describes the unusual way a mother finds to wean her stubborn child—it may or may not involve drawing a monstrous face with coal dust and lipstick on a vital part of herself. And then, more soberly, there is the scene where Francie’s parents care for her, wildly and effectively, in the wake of an attack by a child predator.
But what I really want to talk about is the incredible capacity for love—love despite repeated and profound disappointments, love despite intrinsic flaws, wide-open, caring, compassionate and heart-wrenching love, given over and over again—that Francie’s family has in spades. And that’s really what the tree in Brooklyn is all about. It’s about finding growing things in a slum. It’s about finding beauty and grace in privation and injustice. It’s about loving people because people are always and forever worthy of love, no matter their grievous and numerous offenses.
The women—Francie, Katie, and Katie’s sisters—are the heroes of this novel; they are the central protagonists, and most of them are married most of the time to men who do not seem their equals. Consider this brief summary of Johnny Nolan and his brothers: “These were the Nolan boys. All died young. All died sudden or violent deaths brought on by their own recklessness or their own bad way of living. Johnny was the only one who lived past his thirtieth birthday” (p. 72). And he dies at the age of thirty-four.
When he realizes his first child is about to be born, he goes out drinking in fear and worry, misses his shift, loses his job, and doesn’t come home that night. Evy, Katie’s sister, is tending to her when he finally arrives: “When Johnny got home, Evy started to lecture him. But when she saw how pale and frightened he looked and when she considered his age—just twenty years old, she choked up inside, kissed his cheek, told him not to worry and made fresh coffee for him. Johnny hardly looked at the baby. Still clutching the avocados, he knelt by Katie’s bed and sobbed out his fear and worry. Katie cried with him. . . . She had had the pain. Dear God! Wasn’t that enough? Why did he have to suffer? He wasn’t put together for suffering, but she was. She had borne a child but two hours ago. She was so weak that she couldn’t lift her head an inch from the pillow, yet it was she who comforted him and told him no to worry, that she would take care of him. Johnny began to feel better” (p. 79).
Sissy, the eldest of the three sisters, provides the most profound example of grace and love, though, in her own imperfections, she shows it more strangely than all the rest put together:
Sissy at twenty-four had borne eight children, none of whom had lived. . . . Between her second and third marriage, she had a succession of lovers all of whom she called John. After each futile birth, her love of children grew stronger. She had dark moods in which she thought she would go crazy if she didn’t have a child to love. She poured out her frustrated maternity on the men she slept with, on her two sisters, Evy and Katie, and on their children. Francie adored her. She had heard it whispered that Sissy was a bad girl, but she loved her fiercely just the same. Evy and Katie tired to be mad at their erring sister but she was so good to them that they couldn’t hold out out against her. . . . Johnny studied Sissy as he smoked an after-supper cigar. He wondered what criterion people used when the applied the tags ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to their fellowmen. Take Sissy. She was bad. But she was good. She was bad where the men were concerned. But she was good because wherever she was, there was life, good, tender, overwhelming, fun-loving and strong-scented life. He hoped that his newly born daughter would be a little like Sissy (pp. 66, 88).
When Johnny turns twenty-one, already the father of two babies, he goes out to celebrate his right to vote by getting drunk for three straight days, at the end of which his wife locks him in their room so he can sober up. When delirium tremens takes hold, “his tortured cries unnerved Katie” (p. 98) so she runs to Sissy’s factory, desperate for help. Sissy gets the advice of a gentleman friend, hides a small bottle in her corset, then heads to the Nolans where Katie sends her into the bedroom:
She let him take a long drink, then she dug the bottle out of his clutching fingers. He quieted down after the drink; got sleepy and begged her not to go away. She promised. Without bothering to tie up her ribbons or button her waist, she lay on the bed beside him. She put her arm under his shoulders and he rested his cheek on her bare warm-scented breast. He slept and tears came from under his closed lids and they were warmer than the flesh they fell on.
She lay awake, holding him in her arms and staring into the darkness. She felt towards him as she would have felt towards her babies had they only lived to know her warm love. She stroked his curling hair and smoothed his cheek gently. When he moaned in his sleep, she soothed him with the kind of words she would have spoken to her babies. Her arm cramped and she tried to move it. He woke up for a moment, clutched her tightly and begged her not to leave him. When he woke to her, he called her mother. . . . He wept quietly. He sobbed out his fears and his worries and his bewilderment at the way things were in the world. She let him talk, she let him weep. She held him the way his mother should have held him as a child (which she never did). Sometimes Sissy wept with him. When he had talked himself out, she gave him what was left of the whiskey and at last he fell into a deep exhausted sleep (pp. 99-100).
This is why I love this book. It’s not about forcing people to be something they’re not. It’s hoping for them to be better, helping them to try, but loving the reality, meeting them where they are, and realizing that everything else falls away in the blanket of sincere charity. It’s about facing harsh realities, and finding the reasons why they are not the whole world, recognizing what transcends them, and learning how to be a part of that transcendance. It doesn’t lie about hardship. It doesn’t gloss over wretchedness, or try to pretend that it’s better than it is. But it doesn’t wallow in it, either, and it drives home, again and again, that the only truly damning thing would be to respond with brittle, with lack of grace, with lack of dignity, with lack of kindness. It is easy to be virtuous when the world around us is comfortable. But, in the words of our dearly departed John Paul II, we were not made for comfort. We were made for greatness.
That fall in the false warmth of a Brooklyn Indian summer, Katie sat on the stoop and held her sickly baby against the bigness which was another child soon to be born. Pitying neighbors stopped to commiserate over Francie.
“You’ll never raise that one,” they told her. “Her color ain’t good. If the good Lord take her, it will be for the best. What good is a sickly baby in a poor family? There is too many children on this earth already and no room for the weak ones.”
“Don’t say that,” Katie held her baby tightly. “It’s not better to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way” (p. 94).
(N.B. Quotations taken from Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2005.)