On Her Flying Trapeze

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Beauty in Every Soul – A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Chapters 1-10

Betty Smith paints with words, talented beyond my limited means to express. As I read this book, I ask myself over and over again the question – WHY HAS NO ONE MADE ME READ THIS BOOK BEFORE?

I’m sure Betty would say that a person cannot be forced to read a book but must discover it on their own. I can imagine she would deny the perfection of her own exquisite prose, stating that there are multiple sides and shades to anything, the good must be taken with the bad and a love or distain created out of the complex web of contradictions.

I was hooked from the moment she began to describe the old man, seated in the bakery.

“Francie stared at the oldest man. She played her favorite game, figuring out about people […] her thoughts ran…

‘He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president […] He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there […] Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he don’t want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he’s old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.’ […]

A terrible panic that had no name came over her as she realized that many of the sweet babies in the world were born to come to something like this old man some day. She had to get out of that place or it would happen to her.”


Aging and death are recurring themes in this book, the idea that our time here is limited. As I read, I feel a growing sense of urgency, an urgency to get out of this place I’m in before “it” happens to me, to choose my life and not live by accident.

Francie’s mother chooses to take charge of her life and clings to the direction she has created for herself, while her father lets life happen to him, playing the victim and enabling himself to fall deeper and deeper into a hole of self-loathing. The amazing part about these two and all of the characters in the novel is the depth with which they are portrayed. I LOVE that I can simultaneously identify with and censure a character. I adore that they do not feel like flat people made up of words on a page but rather living, breathing beings who might accidentally let a fleck of spittle fly my way if I'm not careful.

The description of the way Francie’s sainted grandmother views the world seems to be a roadmap for the way Betty Smith wants you to view the world she has created within the story, seeing the good and the bad in people but choosing to embrace the good, realizing that we are all flawed and we are all deliciously beautiful in all our failure, triumph and daily plodding hypocrisy.

Near the end of this week’s section, on page 95, a Woman is telling Francie’s mother Katie that the child is a whelp who would be better-off dead. Although Katie feels no great love for her child, she fiercely disagrees with the woman’s conclusion.

“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.”

“Aw, somebody ought to cut that tree down, the homely thing.”

“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie. “But because there are so many, you just can’t see how beautiful it really is. Look at these children.” She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. “You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.”


And you’d be right, Betty Smith, he would be beautiful because he already is. We all are.

Yes, you too.

18 Comments:

Blogger Kage said...

I remember the day I learned that I could choose my own life, that God's gift of agency truly was the best gift he could ever give me.

I relate to the Katie character for that reason. I also relate to Francie, I think once I was unblocked by the trials of my youth, I had the same curiosity of the world, and I like to think I still possess that. I often find myself observing people like that old man that F observes.

I also relate to time. Everyday I thank my Heavenly Father that I have another day. I feel such a strong urgency (in general) to DO. I want to make the most of what I am given, and though I welcome (am not afraid of) aging and dying, I certainly don't intend on it sneaking up on me.

DYM, thanks for expressing all of this so beautifully, I am much farther in the book (can't help it, it's so good), but I am glad to be reminded of these beginning chapters...makes what I am reading now far more meaningful.

8/12/2006 5:44 AM

 
Blogger Barb, sfo said...

Yes--this is a glorious book!
My favorite early scene is Francie on the fire escape, with her book and her pickle, in her place of refuge from everything else.

8/12/2006 7:40 AM

 
Anonymous Antique Mommy said...

My mother recommended this book to me when I was about 30, long long before I had children. I think I read it in one sitting because I just couldn't put it down. Although I haven't read it for a quite a while, I remember thinking that Betty Smith wrote so beautifully and with such wisdom. You have made me think that I should pick it up again and re-read it, especially now that I'm a mother.

8/12/2006 8:06 AM

 
Blogger Janet a.k.a. "Wonder Mom" said...

And I've always wanted to read this book. Now you have made me want to go and get it, especially being a mom now. The thought that we are only here momentarily is what I've been swirling around in my head for a few days now...Thank you.

8/12/2006 9:33 AM

 
Blogger Grammy said...

I've loved this book too, but haven't read it for a while. I'll be working on catching up to y'all. I read th8is in the first place because I enjoyed her "Joy in the Morning" so much. So, Kage, if you run out of trees in Brooklyn try this one too.

8/12/2006 10:09 AM

 
Blogger meredith said...

This book sounds like something I'd like to read. I'll try to find it.

8/12/2006 10:26 AM

 
Anonymous MoneyDummy said...

I've always loved this book. When I read it, I was only thirteen of fourteen so it was hard for me to completely understand some of the emotional concepts, as well as some of the relationships and things that happen (no spoilers here, don't worry). But juxtaposed against the my naivete that limited my undersatnding, I also felt a rich resonation that made my heart start to pound as I recognized my own feelings, thoughts, and passions.

It's the kind of book that makes me homesick for a time I've never lived in, and a place I've never seen.

A truly great masterpeice.

8/12/2006 10:29 AM

 
Blogger Cheerio's on my butt? said...

Beautiful. I want to read more of her!

8/12/2006 2:37 PM

 
Blogger Kristi said...

Hey! I just did a post on this book, too! You stole my post! I'm calling the blog police!

Just kidding. Mine was more like a one-liner: I like this book...it's cool.

8/12/2006 4:08 PM

 
Blogger allysha said...

aahhggg! I forgot to read- although I have read this book a zillion times. And I adore it. I love Francie. I love how Betty Smith wraps the plot around itself so beautifully and easily, I think that I should be able to write like that. (Yeah, right!)
I will catch up tomorrow!

8/12/2006 6:20 PM

 
Anonymous EmLouisa said...

I can't believe I haven't read this book. I have been meaning to for YEARS and haven't ever done it. So far I LOVE it!

Betty has a great way of making the reader feel like they are actually there. I can smell it. I can taste it.

I love books like this because they give you a good glimpse of how things were way back when. And it makes me feel grateful for everything that I have in my life. Sometimes we get so caught up in "needing" things that we forget that we don't really "need" them after all.

I am so glad that you chose this book! I hate reading books and then not having anyone to chat with about it. This is great! I'm excited to delve into the next part of the book!

8/12/2006 6:40 PM

 
Blogger Bek said...

I haven't read this one of hers (I know, I know) but I HAVE read her other one called The Amature Marriage and it is wonderful.

When you are done read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner...you will love it.
r

8/12/2006 9:40 PM

 
Anonymous Bonzo said...

I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago. The themes are so deep yet not sufficating. I think it can be appreciated no matter where a person is in life. I love books where every time I read I am affedted differently depending on what I am going through or have experienced at the time. I remember loving Francie's aunt, she is so REAL to me. I know why Francie loved her so. Yet as I am reading I can't help but hope she changes somehow and grows up...more on that in future chapters.
First 100 pages...let's see, I loved (and hated) how my emotions were up and down, I could not believe how much I cared about these people. They were like my own family.
DYM great pick and I am enjoying everyone's comments

8/12/2006 11:48 PM

 
Blogger lost indie said...

The weaning scene...OMG! I can almost see that wee lad drinking strong black coffee....

8/14/2006 3:58 AM

 
Blogger Kage said...

oh yeah the weaning scene! And grammy, I am glad to know about JOY b/c I was wondering...ps my girls call my mom grammy....coincidence!

8/14/2006 11:53 AM

 
Blogger Nettie said...

Okay, you convinced me. I picked this book up at the library today. Must now balance trying to catch up and still get the laundry and dishes done!

8/14/2006 2:39 PM

 
Anonymous Heather from One Woman's World said...

You definitely make me want to read this book. Sounds just lovely.

8/14/2006 11:20 PM

 
Blogger Jen Rouse said...

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite all-time books. It was the first book I ever truly "lost" myself in. I was reading it during a boring class in junior high, and when the bell rang at the end of the period, it was like waking up out of a dream. I had truly forgotten about myself, my class and all my surroundings. Your post makes we want to pull it off my bookshelf and read it again.

8/15/2006 12:55 PM

 

Post a Comment

<< Home