Friday, June 5, 2009

How Times Change, and How They Don’t: Reflections on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, by Betty Smith: Chapters 1-2

Along with Loren Christie and one or two of our friends, I have just started reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, the autobiographical novel by Betty Smith that has earned its place in the Canon. This is a book I have long wished to read, if only for its title. My father, who grew up on Long Island, used to take the train daily to attend Brooklyn Preparatory High School, and has long prided himself on his “Brooklyn accent”, which he claims is the “King’s English”.

I don’t think anyone can read this without comparing the life of poverty led by the childhood character Francie with the way things are now. She and her brother Neeley would spend the week collecting recyclables and bring them to the junk shop every Saturday. Half was put into a tin can for family savings and the other half was split between the siblings, to be spent at the five-and-dime on silly trinkets.

Recycling has become the fashionable thing to do for those of all walks of life. I like to play a game to see how high I can fill the recycling containers – and sometimes even a second pail full – and then am happy to see the Town of Brookhaven take it away, sometimes even operating at a loss for the Town. After a party, I like to bring the soda cans to the grocery store and get some change in my pocket, even though I know I paid that deposit up front.

Back then, collecting and cashing in a recyclables was a necessity just to make ends meet. Even if the kids did not work for an income, this was a way they could contribute to the household budget. Nowadays, I still see several characters in our town roaming up and down the main road with grocery carts, picking up cans. If they are lucky, they will come up with enough to buy a 99-cent burger and a cheap bottle of wine to keep them warm at night.

If Francie let the junk shop owner pinch her cheek without flinching, she would get an extra “pinching penny”. It is so interesting to me how she and Neeley understood there was something wrong with this, and yet allowed it so she could get that extra penny. Sprinkled throughout that first chapter were mentions of other adult characters that the children knew to stay away from. And yet they were allowed free roam of the streets from dawn until dusk.

Nowadays we keep a good eye on our young ones, and many now have cell phones so their parents can know where they are at all times. Dangerous people have always been out there – what is the salient difference, I wonder? It seems to me that children back then were a lot more grown up, and trusted to be able to deal with the danger that is part of life.

The children go out to buy stale, day-old bread, and cheap cuts of meat for the family dinner. Three times a day they are allowed bitter, black coffee with condensed milk on the side; they are permitted to have plain coffee without milk as often as they like. Francie is permitted her coffee with milk although her mother knows she will pour it out after dinner. She just likes to hold the warm cup and smell the coffee. It makes them feel rich to be able to waste something.

This seems like such a significant trifle to mention. That, along with the fact that Francie will hide her day-old bread in a paper bag, shows that Francie’s family, although poor, has pride. Her mother cuts a fine figure, not looking like she cleans houses for a living. Her father is a drunk, but is well-loved by everyone in the neighborhood.

I loved the second chapter, in which Francie goes to the library. It makes me happy that Ben Franklin started the first free public library and that most towns have one. Her dream is to own ONE book of her own. That makes me thankful that I have so many, and that my kids have an abundance of them. It makes me feel very rich.

Francie reads a book a day, going through alphabetical order, thinking that eventually she can read every book that was every written. This draws her character close to my heart. I remember as a child reading how Anne of Green Gables was reading the dictionary one page at a time and I started to do the same thing. On the back of one of my books was a list of the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written and I vowed I would read them all; I am still working on it.

Read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” along with us! I will be blogging on this book as I go along.

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