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Trees in Fiction

I have recently returned from a week’s holiday in Orkney. The landscape is beautiful, but there are few trees in it. Trees are amazing: some have been alive for more than 4000 years (the Great Basin Bristlecone); the tallest trees grow to 380 ft (the Sequoia or Redwood). California is the home of both these species.

I have been thinking about trees and how they are used in literature. For example, do you know this poem, published in 1914?

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast,

A tree that looks at God all day,
A lifts her leafy arms to pray,

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair:

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

An oak tree by the Bovey River in Dartmoor National Park

Kilmer, who enlisted in the US Army in the First World War and was killed in action in 1918, draws attention to the significance of trees: as shelter, as evidence of god’s creativity (he was a Catholic), as a living thing, as an enduring thing, and of course as a thing of beauty. Trees in fiction draw on some of the same features, and bring to mind ideas of 

  • Steadfastness
  • Longevity
  • Shelter
  • Provider of food
  • Slow growth
  • Power
  • Former times
  • vulnerability
  • loveliness.

Here are six novels that explore some of these ideas.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

The tree in this long novel describing the coming-of-age of an impoverished young woman of immigrant families, stands for slow growth over the passage of time, and for steadfastness in the face of a hostile environment. The tree and Francie are both persistent and the novel honours this quality.

It’s a long novel, something of a classic and very popular with American troops in the Second World War. You can find my review here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021)

In this novel the fig tree takes an active part in narrating the story. The island of the title is Cyprus, divided and with a history of recent violence. The fig tree grew on the dividing line, inside a tavern, but has been brought to London by Kostas who devotes his time to keeping it alive, even in North London’s inhospitable winters. 

A fig tree is a source of food, and its leaves, traditionally, a source of clothing. In this novel it represents the fragile lives of the island’s inhabitants and diaspora. Loss, death, migration, separation, these are all themes in this novel. Not all readers are convinced by the talking tree, by the way. Here is the link to my review.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)

Another tree with supernatural powers is found in this late novel by Barbara Comyns. The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. It retells the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable, and the story is told with a feminist slant.

The tree in this novel grows in the garden of the home that Bella has shared with the Forbes, eventually marrying the widowed husband and becoming a step-mother. But happiness is a very fragile thing and Bella nearly loses hers. The link to my review can be found here.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

The Trees by Percival Everett (2021)

You need a very strong stomach for this novel for the trees are the southern kind that Nina Simone and Billy Holliday refer to as bearing ‘strange fruit’. Lynching. There is some very dark, macabre humour in this novel, but fury also drives through this imagined story of revenge for the death of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and all the thousands of lynchings in the southern states. 

The features of an ordinary plot juxtaposed with the carnage that grows through the story echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream. We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. My review can be found here.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp. The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

And some others

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012)

Poetic and sparse, this short novel is set in a beautiful orchard of pomegranate trees, in north Pakistan. The Taliban are active, punishing those who disobey their rules, or just punishing people. The narrator has suffered in prison, and must learn to live, love and write again. The story is quiet, with sensory perceptions heightened. The orchard pays a part in his recovery. Review can be found here.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by Faber and Faber. 139pp

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

The horrific Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-16 should have warned us about pandemics. The lessons learned by those involved should have been taken on board by the world as we faced the Coronavirus. In this novel, participants in the deadly epidemic relate their roles, including the baobab tree who has the last word.

‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’

The tree, a meeting point in many villages, welcomes back the humans when the outbreak is over and is optimistic about the future in which ‘the destiny of Man will become one with ours’. 

Baobab tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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