Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Mother’s Wisdom Finally Recognized: Reflections on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”: Book Two

Please click on key word A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for previous installments in this series.

In Book Two (chapters 7–14) of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, Francie Nolan breaks off from her own adolescent memories to tell her life story from the point of view of her mother, Katie. She has already told us that she prefers her father, but we can see that as she pieces together her history she understands a bit of what her mother has gone through for her children.

Katie won Johnny over from her best friend and they married four months later. Soon they learned that she was pregnant and her father never quite got over the fact that he was responsible for this new life. From that night, he would drown his sense of incompetence in drink.

Even the name Johnny, to me, seems to confer the title of a lovable boy who refuses to grow up. Most men will cast of their childish nicknames once they become responsible, mature citizens. He would never change.

There is much description of all the siblings of both Johnny and Katie. The tacking-down of family characteristics is one that only comes of several generations sitting down together and sharing story after story. Francie can identify which of her characteristics came from which side, which from the books she reads, and which were just God-given. Although she may question God multiple times throughout the book, He is an every-present given that she cannot deny.

To her own mother, a saintly, uneducated, first-generation immigrant named Mary who is married to “the devil”, Katie bemoans the circumstance that she has brought a girl into the world, who she fears is destined to live a poor and hard life like her.

People of my parent’s generation didn’t want their children to have to work as hard as they did. They worked to save college money. I remember my parents telling me how they had to work through high school in the evenings. They wanted me to get the most of my education. That was my job, they said. They wanted me to be a kid. They gave me odd chores, such as leaf-raking and babysitting, to have some of my own money, and they paid for all my essentials. Others of my peers had more given to them: designer clothes, ski trips, and fancy cars. Many of them never did learn to fend for themselves. The next generation seems to be even more spoiled. Now video games and cell phones are provided to most children. Where is the fine line dividing what should be provided for children, and what should not?

Mary, who has never herself learned to read or write, offers some sage advice.

1. Read to them a page a day each from Shakespeare and The Bible, until they can read for themselves. She doesn’t even know that Shakespeare is a writer, not the name of a specific book, but she has heard it is a great book. She specifies the Protestant Bible because she thinks it sounds lovelier. Although they do read this translation, the Nolans are very Catholic in their beliefs and their ways.
2. Save a nickel a day toward the purchase of land. In ten years she would have $50, enough to purchase a lot of land. Her words will turn out to be true, in a weird and kind of ironic way.

Another child quickly follows, seemingly a mystery to both of them. These youngsters still don’t understand how biology works. A mid-wife offers her a bottle of medicine that will terminate the pregnancy, but her mother refuses it, saying she will find a way to get along.

Katie follows Mary’s advice, no matter how hard, and her children help her in carrying it out, having its importance deeply engrained in their minds through her own dogged self-discipline. How the bank is built and attached, and how the Bible and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare are obtained are whole stories in themselves. Betty Smith is so descriptive and colorful that you can see the tin can nailed in its dark closet, and the old volumes that would be the entire family library for many years.

Katie mother admits to herself that she loves her son more than her daughter. She knows this from the moment she holds her strong son, while her one-year-old daughter is still failing to thrive.

It must have been heart-breaking for Francie to know this as she grew up, sub-consciously at first, and later quite clearly. I wonder how many deep, tearful conversations they had together when Francie got older and was able to discuss this all at depth with her mother.

One night, which seemingly portends an early death, Johnny tells Francie that their new apartment will be “my last home”. She misses the “my” part until reminiscing in her narration. They are standing on the roof, watching a boy steal a pigeon from his family. “Maybe the pigeon wanted to get away from his relatives,” says Johnny. Alcohol is stealing him from his family and, most of the time, he doesn’t seem to mind.

Francie has so many very colorful characters in her family. I think that she has learned to be very non-judgmental in her own world view as a result of her poignant observations of her relatives, including circumstances that have made them stray from the straight-and-narrow, analysis of their good intentions, hope that God will have mercy on them in the afterlife, and the sting of those outside the family who would cast aspersions on her and her loved ones.

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.


Loren Christie said...

HI Elizabeth,
I think it's very clever how Smith gives you background on all of Francie's relatives and ties the information together by saying that Francie is made up of pieces of all of them.

I think the drinking started for Johnny when he had to quit school and take jobs singing where drinking was rampant. I've always viewed alcoholism as a disease; either you have it or not. That environment was such a bad one for him because it nurtured this tendency. I don't understand why Katie doesn't take a hard stand against his drinking and force him to look at it. Perhaps she's in denial. Something is going to happen later in the story that will point to her being in denial of his sickness. I still feel for him coming from the perspective that addiction is a black hole that is very difficult to climb out of. Good review of these chapters. :)

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Do you mean when she makes Francie cross out "drunk" in her journal and write "sick" instead? Or the insistence that alcoholism not be put as a contributing factor on the death certificate? I never saw the denial part - I just thought she accepted that she was never going to change this about him. And I think she wanted to keep this a secret as much as possible so the family wouldn't be shamed and his memory not be sullied.

Barb, sfo said...

I loved this book, and this section of it is my absolute favorite. I read this book every summer for years and years. Might be a good summer to read it again! I've worn through 2 copies already.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Oh, yes I see it listed as one of your favorites, Barb, thanks for coming over and commenting!