PolicyMic Summer Reading List: Growing Up and Growing Older With 'A Tree Grows in Brookyn'


Editors Note: Throughout the summer, we are going to run a series of articles called the PolicyMic Summer Reading List where users write about their favorite books. We’d love to cover a wide variety of books and we’d love for lots of users to contribute to this series. Do you have a favorite book you’d like to write about? Let Elena Sheppard know, (elena@policymic.com) and soon you too could be featured as a part of this series! Check out the first in the series here and the second here.

"Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York."

I have read these words probably more than a thousand times. They comprise the first line of Betty Smith's classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

To be clear, I didn't grow up in Brooklyn (Manhattan born and raised, though my father and grandfather were both Brooklyn-born) and I don't live there now, but I have read and re-read that book more times than I can count since my late grandmother gifted it to me sometime in the late '80s. 

The novel, set in the early 20th century, moves back and forth over the span of about 20 years, ranging from the courtship of Francie's parents, Johnny and Katie, to her own 16th year, though not chronologically. In essence, Smith writes the world through Francie's eyes, and through the eyes of a young girl, even a small corner of the world can seem very, very big.

An avid childhood reader and writer, I felt a kinship with heroine Francie Nolan. Despite the decades between us, I could identify with Francie's tendency to escape into books and stories. I shared her love for literature and theater, for the catharsis they could offer. Like Francie, I wrote because by doing so I could create my own altered reality. 

As an adult, I've come to also gain sympathy for, and identify with, Katie Nolan, a steely woman who is the backbone of her family. Katie, I believe, helped me become resourceful. After all, is it really possible to read about how to make meals from scarcely more than stale bread a thousand times and not grow up to be someone who avoids wasting food by whatever creative means necessary? 

While Francie inherits her fanciful, dreamer nature from her father, a deeply loving and deeply flawed alcoholic singer, it is from her mother that she gets her creativity, her strength and her resolve. 

I think that's one of the things I love most about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It can grow with you. The journey of reading it is different at 16 than it was at 9. The scenes and characters meant one thing at 24 and mean quite another at 33. 

It's been quite a while since I've read the book from start to finish. Usually, I just open to a random page, read for a while and then go on my way. I go back to it when I'm overwhelmed, when life is moving too quickly, and when I need to stop and take in myself and my surroundings, and to think, as Francie did:

"If I can fix every detail of this time in my mind, I can keep this moment always."

This is the copy of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" given to me more than two decades ago. It has accompanied me to at least 15 countries. It has been accidentally drowned in swimming pools and bathtubs, and what remains of its cover is held together by multiple layers of tape. The pages have been turned so many times, they feel velvet-soft. I will never, never get rid of this book. 


"The untold want by life and land ne'er granted,

Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find"