Tag Archives: education

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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Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

I loved reading this book for two reasons. First, it validated being a difficult woman, that is considered to be difficult every time I objected to something sexist. Second, it was my history. I am solidly and proudly a ’second wave’ feminist. Additionally, it provided perspective on some developments in gender politics during my life. 

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights

The full title gives you an idea of the content and structure of this book. Helen Lewis explores eleven fights in the history of feminism and you could probably predict what they are. Some have not yet been won, others began a very long time ago. Each one, as Helen Lewis shows, was pushed forward by one or more women who were seen as very difficult.

Christabel Pankhurst and the fight for the vote
Marie Stopes and sex
Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strike
Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly Lesbian MP
Sophia Jex-Blake and women’s medical education
Erin Pizzey and women’s refuges
And and and

In each of the eleven fights women refused to be quiet or withdraw their objections, and each of them were vindicated in the longer term. 

In my own past I think of access to contraception for unmarried women, divorce reform, abortion rights, equal pay, maternity leave and childcare. I became a pregnancy counsellor for the centre in a nearby city after being active in the campaign to provide access to abortions in my local area. I learned so much from that work, not least about the agonies for women contemplating abortions.

I was one of the first to apply for maternity leave in the same city, in 1977. It was granted, but the vitriol meted out to me by my colleagues was hard to take. I was taking a man’s job, I was told. I learned the truth of the phrase she quotes more than once: to have it all you must do it all. I became a single mother, wanting to progress my career, to be able to take advantage of living in London, but finding that my life was exceedingly tough for several years. 

And so my personal struggles were often feminist struggles. This is true for Helen Lewis too, although she is at least a generation younger than me. As we used to say – the personal is political.

Omissions

Two omissions from this book sadden me. I spent my professional life working in schools or on school improvement in the university. I worked in London schools from 1982. These were the years of school curriculum reform, and analysing classrooms from perspectives such as racism, sexism and class. We considered the curriculum that we had inherited and adjusted it for all the children in our schools. From 1988 such freedom was removed from teachers and the curriculum became defined as the knowledge and skills that children needed to acquire at certain points in their lives.

We also looked at how gender relations operated in classrooms. How boys dominated, demanded attention, and occupied the extremes of behaviour. We looked at how teachers prejudged children, by gender, race and class background within seconds of meeting them and considered how to change this. We looked at girls’ aspirations beyond school and tried to raise them. My first published book was on the subject of gender and pastoral care. I was an editor and had a chapter in it.

All this feminist work in schools is overlooked by Helen Lewis, as she focuses only on Higher Education and training men to be teachers in primary schools.

More curious for the overall story of feminist fights is her silence on the Greenham Common protest, a hugely significant political struggle and a very feminist form of activism, women protesting without men. It is mentioned once in relation to contradictory press coverage of the participants. I remember Greenham as an existential battle to remove US missiles from Berkshire, one led by women who sacrificed large parts of their lives to set up a camp around the base and stay there. I joined them in the Embrace-the-base event in 1982, along with my mother, and my sister and our three children. We had a banner quoting Mrs Thatcher on The Falklands: the wishes of the islanders are paramount

Embrace the Base 1982 via Wiki Commons

Women also played a significant and differentiated role in supporting that other great political battle of the 1980s, the miners’ strike. The miners’ wives were heroic and inspirational in their attempts to support the fight against the miners’ unions.

Divisions

One thing Helen Lewis does capture is the long tradition of divisions within the feminist movement, or rather feminist movements. Caring passionately about something means you disagree passionately with others who might also be engaged in change. We label each other and thereby exclude fellow travellers; sometimes we heap scorn and fury on them. Helen Lewis describes how, having become deputy editor of the New Statesman, she earned the opprobrium of many women, who were able to publicly voice their views on social media and in other fora.

I find myself wanting to avoid the current differences in the views about transgender people, not clear about my own opinions, not clear about the issues involved, but witnessing great hurt and anger in the exchanges. 

Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis finishes Difficult Women with a call to put every advance, every step gained into the structures of our society and with a manifesto for difficult women. It begins like this:

The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean. She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it; demanding if the situation requires it; and obstinate, if someone tries to fob her off. She does not care if ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. She is unmoved by the suggestion that it’s ‘natural’ for women to act a certain way or accept a lower status. It probably isn’t, and even if it is – so is dying from preventable diseases. No one thinks we should succumb to cholera just because it’s traditional. 
The Difficult Woman has strong beliefs … (329)

Her writing style is journalistic, which makes it lively. While she draws on her own experiences there is also plenty of evidence to support the arguments, referred to in the text, and listed in the final pages. She’s currently a staff writer on The Atlantic. Wikipedia reports that in 2012 she coined a useful note-to-self called Lewis’s Law

the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.

Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights by Helen Lewis, first published in 2020. Available in paperback from Vintage. 356pp

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