I have heard great things about Betty Smith’s autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all my life—the book and the movie. I finally got around to this readable, accessible, emotionally & historically nimble story.
To say that it’s a coming of age story is accurate, to a point, as accurate as it is to say that it’s a family story or a bootstraps story or a … well, we’d call it historical fiction now, but it was written originally with the psychological & emotional precision that the best stories have.
Betty Smith shapes the protagonist Francie & her family through the lens of what Toni Morrison once called Homeric fairness. That is, it is a story told bravely & honestly, a growing up ennobled & complicated by surprising empathy & honesty. Francie endures the fact that she is less loved by her mother than her brother is — but Smith depicts the mother chides her disarmingly to the effect of, “Oh, honey, don’t make a fuss — you know that he needs my love & support more than you do.” And you believe the mother. Francie bristles at the indignities & consequences of her father’s drunkenness — but Smith also centers the father’s love & struggles, his talent & tragedy.
I could go on. There’s no single antagonist, no enemy (unless it is poverty). There is instead the ambiguities of life & the everyday heroism of love & hard work, the gentle daily blessings that get people through the persistent daily burdens & losses.
It is a beautiful & hopeful book, made all the more beautiful by the direct style (which has moving flourishes & shifts in POV) and made all the more hopeful by the realization that we are not alone, or at least not alone for long.