Greetings, dear readers! We had a long book this month, so I’m not sure how many participants got through it, but we thoroughly enjoyed this one! We also have a long discussion, so we’ll get right to it.
Be sure to scroll to the bottom for next month’s book info, plus a teaser for the exciting prize we’ll be giving away to for one of our readers who completes our classics readalong challenge!
Layla: So, this has been on my to-read list for a few years, and I’m really excited that it’s the focus of our discussion this month. Things that I really liked: the incredible amount of detail that went into building Francie’s Brooklyn (the pickles and the coffee and the sugar buns! her trips to the public library! all of the various descriptions of clothing and the way each house and building was laid out!). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was super evocative – so much sensory detail. Yesss, tell me how everything smells and tastes and how you make it, ok, thanks. Actually, if all books came with a recipes section at the end, I would be delighted.
Wendy: I’ve been meaning to read this book forever, too. Thanks so much for suggesting this one, Kim–I loved it! You really do feel as if you’re sitting on the stoop watching life go by as you read this book. And obviously, I love the food porn! Recipes would have been amazing. Juicy pickles (so funny that All-of-a-Kind Family also has pickle-fixation) and candy and more, though I felt awful when the family was wanting. Those poor kids surviving on coffee and bread with occasional condensed milk, and the tricks Francie had to learn to get the poor cuts of meat or limp vegetable at a discount. There were so many interesting details and points of discussion that I put a sticky note in pretty much every 5 pages.
Kate: I have owned this book since middle school, when it was on my summer reading list, but I was having a hard time with being poor myself so I set it aside and never picked it back up. Cold Sassy Tree was also on this reading list, and I decided not to read it, either, and this is why, to this day, I am turned off by “tree” in titles.
I’m pretty bummed that I missed out on this one as a kid; it really would have meant a lot to me. I’m so glad Kim picked it for our readalong.
Kim: Well, phew! I’m glad everyone liked this one! It’s always a bit nerve wracking when new people are coming to one of your favorite books for the first time. I read this for the first time myself when I was in 7th grade. At the time my normal reading fare was Sweet Valley Twins and Animorphs so this was a transformative experience for me. I easily delved right into Francie’s world and gobbled up every detail. This book took me out of the world I then knew and showed me a world simultaneously larger and smaller than my own. It’s the first time I remember feeling really changed by a book. At the same time, there is a lot I didn’t really get or understand reading this as a child, teen, and even as a younger adult (I was 20 the last time I re-read this one) and it’s been an interesting experience to see what my 28 year old self has discovered on the re-read.
Wendy: I still want to do Sweet Valley High for one of our readalongs, though I’m torn–can people get ahold of the original ones? I know the ebooks that were recently released had updated details, and I am NOT having that. Having that same issue with Down a Dark Hall, which I think is still going to be our spooky October book. Also, Kim’s hosting an Animorphs readalong at some point. But we digress!
The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church.
Wendy: There’s such a love for literature and respect for education in this story. Francie has to fight for every bit of it she gets, and I love that she never loses sight of her yearning for it, even though times get very hard. It’s also interesting that her parents, both uneducated and uninterested in education themselves, support her in this for the most part. Her father, because it’s what his daughter desires (the anecdote when he writes the lying letter so she can go to a good school was awesome), and her mother, because she saw it as a way out of their poverty.
Layla: Augh. That’s why it was so heart-breaking to me when Francie’s mother tells her she can’t go back to school, and that she needs to keep on working to put Neeley through instead. Francie’s always been told that the most important thing is to get an education, but when it comes down to hers or her brother’s, Katie chooses Neeley’s education. Katie says that Francie will fight and claw her way to an education (and she ends up being right) but I was so angry at her for risking Francie’s education.
Kate: It’s tough. I think Katie feels an obligation to have a son who will grow up and actually be reliable, unlike his father. And she loved Johnny so much when she was young, and I think she sees the parts of him that have been lost still living in Neeley, and she wants desperately for him to become the man she thought Johnny was when she married him.
And while this book is certainly positive about education in general, holy moly, are the teachers ever shown in a terrible light.
Kim: The respect for knowledge and education is one of my very favorite things about this book. I remember reading Francie going to that library and the clear reverence she feels so clearly reflected the reverence I felt (and still do) entering a library. I get chills specifically when Mary Rommelly speaks about what a miracle it is that she has children who can even read. Her perspective coming from a long line of European peasants just always really got to me. Generations and generations of illiterate servitude and now at last here is the key to a better life.
As for Katie, there are many times in this book where I found myself getting very frustrated and swinging toward straight dislike of the character (this is a new discovery upon this particular re-read). And then a scene would happen where Katie is noble and good, and self-sacrificing and I’d swing back in the other direction. So ultimately I have pretty conflicted feelings about Katie but I’d say I by and large agree with what Kate has written above.
Wendy: I felt strongly negative feelings towards Katie at times and was also surprised by some of the conclusions that Francie/the author drew from her experiences, but I kept reminding myself that a lot of their attitudes were shaped by how they were brought up and the hard life they endured. Interesting that your feelings about Katie have changed a bit, Kim–if I’d read this as a child, I wouldn’t have known to look on her actions as critically, but I also wouldn’t have felt as much sympathy and appreciation for her, either. I think only time and life experience can help put these types of situations into perspective.
Layla: I feel like the concept of education the book champions is one that is largely self-directed and, in some ways, experiential? (How Francie refuses to go back to high school, saying that her year of work has taught her more than she could have learned in a high school classroom; & also how she studies for the examinations that allow her to begin college.) Anyway, I wonder if that’s why the teachers in this book are (mostly) terrible.
Wendy: Such a good point. I think you’re right about self-directed education, and a part of that attitude has to be making the best of the situation–knowing she might not ever get the chance for higher education, and therefore almost rejecting it before it has a chance to be snatched away from her.
Francie had a nickel. Francie had power. She could buy practically anything in the store! It was the only place in the world where that could be.
Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floor-walker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say yes, buy it, and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided. After an orgy of touching things, she made her planned purchase–five cents’ worth of pink-and-white peppermint wafers.
Wendy: Money is also such a huge issue here, both the power it promises and the terrible consequences of not having it. It’s rare to find YA/MG books that show the underprivileged in this way, and like The Moffats series or the Little House books, there’s an authenticity of detail that is hard to replicate unless it’s a first-hand account.
Kate: The poverty in this book is as difficult for me to read about now as it was when I was a teenager–much more so than the pig’s bladder ball and shiny pennies of Little House, where there’s almost a novelty to it–and I am in awe of how perfectly the author conveyed this stuff.
Wendy: Definitely very different from the portrayals in the first two series I mentioned. I mean, even in the middle of an 8 month blizzard in which six Ingalls survived on a single, small loaf of bread daily, there was a lot of love and hope and dignity–a world away from the hard-scrabble life lessons Francie has to learn.
Kim: It is so incredibly heartbreaking. I actually love that Katie allowed the coffee wasting. It certainly seems eyebrow-raising but The “North Pole game” is especially affecting. Turning poverty and starvation into a game for your children? It’s barely imaginable. These are the sort of things I need to remember when I get frustrated about Katie.
As an aside, I enjoyed the little bits of culture that at first seemed anachronistic until you realize that ridiculous political narratives have been with us for a long time. For instance, at the end of the book after WWI breaks out and they mention they shouldn’t order “sauerkraut” it’s now “Liberty Cabbage.” Also, at one point Francie is listening to someone lecturing about how the poor are only poor because they’re lazy. Francie, incredulous, thinks of Katie’s non-stop labor and marvels, “Mama? Lazy?” This is a narrative that is, rather unfortunately, with us still.
Layla: Yes! That’s her horrible teacher who tells her that she needs to write about love for country, truth, beauty, mother-love, and happy daisies. And YES to everything else you wrote. The Liberty Cabbage moment really reminded me of Freedom Fries.
Wendy: Political correctness gone a little mad. Oh, and as I read the book I was shuddering over Katie forcing Francie to take her brother to get vaccinated all by herself, and that the professionals allowed it! Jeez. I’m watching Call the Midwife right now, which is set in a poor London neighborhood around the same time, so it’s interesting to see the parallels.
I love, love, loved Francie’s graduation day. The jitters, the emotion, and then the overwhelming surprise of her late, fickle, charming father’s gift. I cried into my pillow at that scene–I hope it really happened for Betty Smith.
Layla: I want stories of Francie at college. Or Francie publishing her first book and following up on the cutting drama she scripts between her and her awful English teacher, Miss Garnder (which, by the way, was one of my favorite parts of the book). I also want to read about how Francie realizes that Lee reminds her of her idolized father in his weakness and neediness and in so doing, realizes that she deserves way better because Lee is AWFUL and the WORST. Also, I want to know what Laurie’s childhood is going to be like. (When Francie and Neeley talk about what Laurie’s life is going to be like as a McShane, they say, “She’ll never have the hard times we had … and she’ll never have the fun we had, either.”)
Wendy: I understand why the story stopped where it did, but I’d dearly love to know what happened after they moved away from Brooklyn. I’m also very interested in hearing what’s fact and fiction–from the afterwards in the edition I have, the author says that she wrote it as it should have happened, not as it did.
It’s interesting that both Francie and Katie have such strong anti-women feelings, to the point where they proclaim “I will never be friends with a woman.” This took me aback, even though I think later on Francie softens a bit on that point.
Layla: This broke my soul a little. (Francie writes this after watching a group of women stone Joanna for having a child out of wedlock.) It kills me because Francie’s conclusion is basically, “Well, men stick together, and women constantly turn on one another!” While this would still bother me, it would bother me less if it didn’t seem like it was in some way also the book’s perspective? Like you can only maybe trust women in your family (and sometimes not even then, because they might want to sleep with your husband, but who knows).
Wendy: I read this as the author’s perspective as well.
Kate: YES. THIS. I am generally fine with characters having terrible/racist/misogynistic worldviews, but I cannot stand it when it seems that the author might agree with them. Such a bummer.
Layla: There’s lots of strong women in the novel (Katie! Sissy! Francie!) but they seem really isolated to me. Katie says that she wants Francie to have female friendships – but it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a place for them in the novel. And maybe I’m overthinking this but it also seems to me like the novel thinks that marriage is the best/only end for women (despite Katie’s unhappy marriage, for example, I feel like the only examples we get of single women – or women who live together – are mostly women who are characterized as stunted, miserable, and jealous. We have the teachers – “barren women [who] spent their fury on other women’s children in a twisted authoritative manner” – and the Tynmore sisters, who, upon hearing Katie in childbirth, think, “At least she knows she’s living.) Um. Anyway.
Wendy: Francie’s harsh interpretations and extreme presumptions of feminine motivations really bothered me. It’s easier to look past prejudices and hard-heartedness/hard-headedness in others, but Francie’s clearly a stand-in for Betty Smith, so I was surprised that as the author, writing as an adult, had so little perspective or compassion. I realize that she was not shown compassion herself, but the pronouncements were so negative that they were still difficult (and surprising) to read.
Kim: This was what most surprised me this re-read. I can’t remember ever noticing the anti-woman slant before. And it’s especially strange because the book is filled with “strong women” and Betty Smith was a divorced, single mother in 1930s America. It would seem she’d have a first hand appreciation for feminist issues. I kept waiting for the point in the book where Francie would have a turnaround in opinion/realize how wrong she was but it never happened. This was what affected me the most negatively this time around.
Wendy: I was surprised by how frankly this book includes topics that are more typically adult. This is a classic that was/is taught in schools and I’m hearing that a lot of people read this between the ages of 10 – 12, but even as an adult I’m faintly scandalized by some of this material, hah. Miscarriages, perversions, sexual assault, prejudice, severe illnesses, alcoholism, xenophobia, etc.– these aren’t things I’m used to seeing in books like this.
Layla: Oh my God, yes. I can’t imagine having been assigned this in middle school.
Kim: I did first read this in middle school and, for what it’s worth, a fairly decent amount of this stuff went completely over my head. It’s weird for me the confliction this book has between being feminist and non/anti-feminist. Katie and Francie’s attitudes toward and discussion about sex is very positive and progressive in a book that otherwise has a lot of anti-woman sentiment. It’s just sort of head scratching. But I really, really appreciate that this aspect is portrayed so maturely and without any shaming.
Layla: I was really surprised by Francie’s frank discussions of sexuality with her mother, especially given that this book was written in the ‘40s. That scene where she tells her mother that if she sleeps with someone, she’ll tell her first! I kind of liked the way the book dealt with Francie’s developing sexuality and how her mother manages these conversations as a parent (both when Francie has questions about sex – Katie tells her “simply and plainly all that she herself knew” – but also in practice, when Francie wonders if she’s done the right thing in refusing Lee, and Katie tells her that as a mother, she thinks she’s made the right call, but as a woman, “it would have been a very beautiful thing.”) Anyway, although their relationship is troubled in other ways, I liked this as a model for “talking to your adolescents about sex.”
Wendy: I agree completely–that was a nice moment, a glimpse of the romantic/womanly dreams that Katie has had to forget.
Kate: I really loved this aspect of their relationship. They are both such mature adults about it.
Wendy: It’s sad that Francie had such troubled relationships with the adults in her life overall, though. The doctors and nurses who called her filthy, the teachers who didn’t care or favored children from the well-to-do families, a father she couldn’t rely on, and a mother who made it clear she favored Francie’s brother. It’s clearly the reason she fought so hard for a better life, and why she learned to rely on no one other than herself.
Layla: I KNOW. Could she not get a break? In some ways, I was less bothered by her mother’s attitude than I was by those of some of the other adults in her life. I mean, there were parts of the novel where I felt furious at Francie’s mother, but overall, I feel like she’s trying to do the best for both of her children and herself and she has limited emotional and financial resources (which isn’t to say that her blatant favoritism of Francie’s brother isn’t a problem: it seems to be about putting her time and energy towards the child she thinks will thrive, survive, and take care of her, as well as a kind of messed-up way of working through her relationship with Johnny).
Wendy: Oh, for sure. I understand her mother’s attitude, and even to some degree, the teachers and doctors who might’ve had their own issues going on (no doubt underpaid, understaffed, possibly depressed and needing to distance themselves from people they know they can only help to a certain point). Everyone has a hard life here, and a different burden to bear. It’s sad that Francie was shown so little kindness and constancy in her young life, though. This definitely informed many of the conclusions she drew and her own attitudes and prejudices, some fair, some perhaps not.
I think some of Katie’s “it’s only because Neeley neeeeeds me” justifications are bullshit, though.
Kate: What I hate about the terrible adults in Francie’s life is that I had a completely different experience as a child–right down to the lunchroom lady keeping my Free Lunch ticket hidden so the other kids wouldn’t make fun of me. I don’t know what I would have done without all those kind, compassionate, FEMALE adults in my life.
Layla: This was another thing that kind of struck me – how many of the people who block Francie in this book are female.
Parts in the story I loved: when Sissy goes to talk to Francie’s teacher, when Sissy goes to a doctor for her eleventh child and it lives (I almost cried), when Francie and Neeley bring home their fresh new dollar bills for their first paycheck, when Francie and Neeley win a Christmas tree, when Sissy makes Francie those beautiful golden pennies. Maybe I just really liked Sissy as a character.
Wendy: Sissy was amazing! I think there are a lot of women like her, those who are judged on their flighty behavior and outward appearance and life choices, but who also have all these wonderful qualities that few people see, sometimes only their families. I love that scene when she bullies Francie’s teacher into being more fair to her. AND THE CHRISTMAS CHAPTER! I love the Christmas chapter. So wonderful and awful and lovely all at once.
Kim: Some random thoughts from me: I so loved and was envious of Francie’s emergency stairway reading spot. I wanted to look out the window and read. Not having a window seat I grabbed a giant Tupperware bin, put it below my window, and went about making it has comfortable as I could. It was never very comfortable but at least I had my window view! I abandoned it after I finished this book. But whenever I read TREE I always remember 12 year old me sitting in my makeshirt window eat, voraciously devouring the story and being just generally very content. Also, I was so enamored of the point where Francie makes a capsule of the moment she found out war’s been declared that I made my own personal capsule. I remember taking my sister’s lipstick for the print and snipping off a tiny lock of hair to put in my envelope. Haha whatever ended up happening to that envelope I have no idea!
Wendy: Aw, I can picture dear young Kim curled up on a bin as she read, and dreaming of worlds far away from her own. I love that you made a capsule, too! I remember cutting off a bit of my own hair after Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how many girls have cut off their hair because of books.
Wendy: 4 very strong stars from me. I’m so glad I read this! And I enjoyed reading it with you all. We actually got to discuss on Twitter a bit this time, too.
Layla: 4 stars from me, too. I’m a sucker for good world-building (and also Francie). I wish I’d read it years ago.
Kate: 4 stars. I wish I’d read this for the first time when I was younger, because the anti-feminist bits wouldn’t have bothered me back then. I’ve had a busy couple of months, and this is the first book I’ve read since about June. If Wendy hadn’t warned us about its length, I absolutely would not have gotten through it in time for this discussion.
Kim: 5 stars. I was disappointed by the regressive attitudes toward women in this re-read and it really ended up affecting my opinion of the story. But this will still always be one of the most important and formative books of my life. It filled me with horror, wonder, sorrow and awe. It was the most adult book I’d read up until that time and it profoundly changed my understanding of the world. I’ll love it always.
September Readalong: Harriet the Spy!
Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?
If you love “unlikeable” heroines, Harriet M. Welsch is the girl you want to meet. She is suspicious and defensive and thinks TERRIBLE things about everyone she knows, even her friends. As a kid, I related so much to her curiosity and her prickliness and her feelings of isolation–she and Turtle Wexler would make really good friends, I think! This book also contains a girl who wants to be a chemist, after-school chocolate cake, and a fascinating Manhattan lifestyle. It’s also really, really funny, in a deadpan/situational way that’s unusual for this age group. I love it, and I hope you will, too! The book is around $5 for either the ebook or paperback, and should be readily available in libraries as well.
Also! If you’d like to get a head start on what we’re reading in October, it”ll be Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan–a dark, gothic mystery that’s perfect for Halloween! If you look into getting this book early, though, please try your best to NOT buy the newest edition, which features terrible and unnecessary modernization and language.
— read at least 8 classic middle grade or young adult books of your choice
— review them on your blog or GoodReads
— post the challenge button on your site and/or reviews.
That’s it! Easy-peasy.There are still 3 full months to catch up if you’ve fallen a little behind, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the books we’ll be officially reading for the rest of 2014.
At the end of the year, if you’ve met all the criteria, we’ll be giving away an amazing prize to one lucky TMG classics challenge participant.
Trust me, this is a prize you’re going to want–it is very, very, very, very pretty. I just got everything in yesterday, but will be hopefully taking some photos and giving you a peek at the grand prize later today, so be sure to keep an eye out on #tmgreadalong on Twitter for the big reveal!
Updated to add this photo of the prize! All four gorgeous Puffin in Bloom classics will go to one lucky U.S. winner–and we’ll have a separate prize if an international winner is chosen. :) More photos on Tumblr as well.
All right, did you make it through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this month? Even though our initial 4-way TMG discussion was literally 8 pages long before I edited it down, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful details in this book, and all the fascinating possible discussion points. What did you think of the story, and of Francie?
Tell us how you’re doing on your classics challenge, too! So far we’ve read 7 books together, and I know some of you have been reading other delightful classics as well.