Friday, June 12, 2009
Family Pride: Reflections on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”: Book Three (Chapters 15-42)
Please click on key word A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for previous installments in this series.
Francie is made to feel shame in many social arenas. The doctor comments that she and her brother are dirty. A girl whom she admires for being chosen to beat erasers spits on her. The teachers ignore her and she is forced to wet her pants because she is not allowed to use the restroom. Referring to stories she has written about her father, her teacher tells her that she should not write about “sordid” things, and she stops handing in English assignments; she receives a C in English as a result. Francie is saved from the ultimate shame by her mother, who shoots a rapist before he is able to harm her.
She is particularly conscious of the shame others are made to feel, as in Joanna, the teenage mother who proudly showed her baby around, only to have the local mothers throw stones at her. Her brassy Aunt Sissy is also gossiped about, so much so that they are forced to move. She knows that she is not a “bad woman”, and her father points out to her that even a street walker is not bad; she has been brought low by life circumstance.
Although she has inherited a certain degree of pride shown by her mother in certain things, Francie will not refuse to stoop to lying or taking charity if she really wants something. In one case, she takes a pie offered by the teacher, saying she wants it for a “poor family”, and eats it herself on the way home from school; she is caught. In another, she lies and says her name is Mary, so that she can receive a doll destined for a “poor girl named Mary”; she confesses to her mother and finds that her first name really is Mary! A teacher teaches her an important lesson on how she can write about a desired ending, while telling the truth in real life.
But she feels pride in her heritage: her parents are “real” Americans because they were born in Brooklyn! She can read, and she knows she can write well. She hates perfectly written endings wherein someone comes in and saves another from their situation. This seems to foretell an ending for the novel in which she saves herself from a life of poverty through her own hard work. She is strong, and with her brother is able to withstand the cruel throwing of the Christmas tree in order to bring home a large tree for free.
The entrance of Sergeant McShane, as well as the deteriorating health of Johnny, makes us think that he might be a future second husband for Katie. This would improve the economic situation of the family and bring up their social stature as well. But what about Francie’s strong aversion to depending on a hero to save one at the last minute? We are left wondering as to how things will turn out.
While constantly struggling, both parents do their best to get them the little things that will help them to get ahead in life. Her mother finds a way to get them all piano lessons. (The piano was left in their apartment by the previous tenant, who could not afford to have it moved.) Her father does his part by writing a letter stating that she has moved, so that she can go to school in a nicer part of town. This makes a big difference in the way she sees the world. Suddenly it is bigger and just a little kinder and prettier.
The influence of teachers on a child’s state of mind cannot be overlooked. There are nice and happy music and art teachers who travel from school to school and treat all students fairly. And then there are hardened “old maids” – mostly because married women were not allowed to teach back then – who seem to be absolutely heartless. They shower all their favors on the pretty rich girls and ignore the “unwashed” masses.
On the point of germs, it is both funny and horrifying to hear how their mother kept them free of both lice and disease-causing germs. She would wash Francie’s hair in kerosene and make her wear necklaces of garlic to school! Hence her only friends are the books she borrowed from the library.
When Johnny dies, her mother makes sure the cause of death is written as “pneumonia” only, and not “alcoholism”, although both were going to be written on the death certificate. This is a point of pride for her. But Betty Smith is setting the record straight. Why? She wants the truth to be told, and thinks that dignity can still be preserved without hiding the ugliness of her parents’ struggles. In fact, if a family continues to bury their secrets, they can never learn from them. This is another point in which she and her mother differ on the issue of “pride”.
The family situation goes from bad to worse when Johnny dies, as Katie is pregnant and must find a way to support three children now, while not able to take on more work. Mr. Garritty, the saloon keeper, offers work to the children; this gets them through elementary school and the time of her confinement. Francie’s little sister is born with her help. She and her brother graduate. Although they can barely rub two nickels together, her mother leaves a large tip for the waiter who serves them ice cream.
We are left wondering how Francie will be able to attend high school…
A friend of mine says it is important to tell these stories about family: the good, bad, and the ugly, because no family is perfect and showing how a family can stick together through thick and thin is very important as a model for others who may also be struggling.
Follow me as I explore the rest of this novel, whether or not you have read it or plan to. “A Tree in Brooklyn” has become a commonly used metaphor in American life. In America, you are what you make your life to be.