It is a tribute to Jeanette Walls that I could not get through this book without comparing it dozens of times to The Glass Castle, with The Glass Castle
coming off as its genius granddaughter or fashionable little sister. I probably should have read this first, as a child or teenager, but it’s too late for that now. No regrets! I could not help wondering why Betty Smith wrote this story as fiction rather than memoir, and the fact of it being fiction made me notice a lack of complexity in Francie’s character. Smith did not love, admire, and criticize Francie in the same way she did the Rommely sisters or Johnny Nolan. I am sure that it is because, although Smith uses the omniscient third person, Francie is
Smith, and the story is thoroughly from Francie’s point of view. It is difficult to treat yourself as a fictional character. At the same time, the comparison of the two books is also a tribute to Jeanette Walls because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
is a very wonderful book with many, many beautiful moments. I enjoy photographs that take something ordinary or dreary in real life and turn it into something interesting and beautiful, and this book is the written equivalent of that.
There is a section of this story when Francie meets with her English teacher, in which Smith states one of her theories on writing, and it has stuck with me. Always an exceptional writer, Francie has recently stopped writing romantic, idealized descriptions of things she’s never seen, and begun writing stories about her father’s alcoholism. Her teacher dislikes these stories and tells Francie that successful writing is always about something beautiful and better than life. This is a major conflict for Francie because her father was a beautiful, better-than-life person to her despite his alcoholism, and she feels her teacher’s judgment of their poverty. She also finds that once she has begun writing about real things, it would be superficial to write about anything else.
This exchange was thought-provoking for me because I generally land on the side of Francie’s teacher in this argument. I read for pleasure, and so when an author seems absolutely bent on being vulgar and unpleasant, it makes me angry. I like for fiction to be beautiful and better than life. At the same time, Smith made me realize that my argument is a myopic generalization. Smith’s descriptions of the Nolan family’s poverty and Johnny Nolan’s alcoholism are beautiful and delicate, even though the facts of both are not beautiful or delicate. The descriptions are even important, because it is so easy to oversimplify classes of people into noble or lazy, rather than seeing the complexity of individual situations. I’m glad that Smith did not take her English teacher’s and my advice.
While I enjoyed most of this book, I did not love it. I think this was because I did not love Francie, or even have a very definite image of who she was. I loved
all of her family members and the stories of their lives. I found the Rommely family wonderful and fascinating, even Katie’s evil father. I would never argue that this was not an important book, and I am glad I read it. As fiction and even as a coming of age story, there was not a specific plot point drawing me through the book, as most of the events were pretty well foretold from the first 100 pages. I do not think this was a failing on Smith’s part, because I believe her intention was more photographic – a series of snap shots of life in Brooklyn before World War I. I am looking forward to watching the movie, though, as I think I will benefit from having a face for Francie.