Behind the Bookcase, Part 6: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“She had become accustomed to being lonely. She was used to walking alone and to being considered ‘different.’ She did not suffer too much.”  Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Ch. 20

What is the wall between rich and poor made of?

In my world as a middle schooler, it was largely made of denim. Size 10 jeans, to be exact. I still remember standing in the isle of the Memphis department store, holding a pair of Guess jeans, agonizing over whether I ought to spend several months’ allowance on the white-washed status symbol.  (For those of you who are Anne of Green Gables fans, they were my puffed sleeves.)

Why was I so desperate to have those jeans? Was I just vain? Or was I trying, without even knowing it, to bridge the divide, to cross over into an entire world I felt shut out of—a world not just of money, but coolness and significance.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, of course, Francie is worried about far more urgent needs than jeans.  She lives in a tenement house in Brooklyn prior to World War I, and it would seem that in the first 50 pages, her most pressing concern is food.  The action of the story revolves around how shrewdly she shops for the family’s bread and meat, and in a segment just about any kid would find mouth-watering, how she plans to spend her own small amount of money for a piece of candy.

Published in 1943, the book became an immediate bestseller.  Since then, it has of course lived on in numerous printings, including a pocket book form used by the armed services in World War II. (Apparently those army boys did look at something besides pin-ups of Betty Grable! Who knew?)  And then there are the movie versions, as well as the Broadway production that ran for some 260 odd shows. According to the Sparknotes reviewer, Oprah Winfrey chose A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of the top ten most influential books in her own life.

When I first encountered Francie, the extreme poverty of her world was light-years away from my own.  But I understood class.  I knew that some kids (and their parents) would be your friend only if you could dress and look a certain way.  Sometimes I made the cut.  Sometimes I didn’t.

I have been trying to put my finger on the effect of this book in my own life.  And while I’m sure it shaped my vision in a number of ways, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the first books that brought to my mind the human cost of the walls between rich and poor.  I had been taught that all people were equal, that money didn’t make the man.  I had also felt in my own life the inordinate power of money.  As an adolescent, I just wanted to to fit in, to be able to stand next to the other girls in my class and wear clothes that didn’t make me feel silly. I didn’t realize until recently this in itself was a love for the power of money.

Books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (and there were many of them—John Steinbeck’s books, for instance, or stories by William Faulkner) helped me explore that tension, and confirmed for me in a powerful way that people like Francie—people with very little money—were ultimately just as significant as anyone else.  And no matter how I failed in my own life to live as if it were true, Francie embodied the human dignity common to all people. From then on, I played the charade. I still shopped for cool clothes.  I still tried to not look silly.  I did, after all, have to wear clothes.  (As Mark Twain put it, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no impact on society.”)  But I had joined the mass of readers who know it is all a facade.  I knew that the real me was beyond class, that I would be the same person with the same dignity whether I had Guess jeans or not.

In other words, the ideal of money had been dethroned.  Sort of.  The problem is that even though I saw it was a sham, I still found myself worshiping it.  Or at least being constrained by it.

Years later when I was in college, I remember the guilt I felt over something that happened in my sorority.  One of our new members had only been a part of the group for several months. We warned her several times of our standards for public behavior. But the final straw had come that week, with the information she had been seen a few nights before “drunk and hanging all over some Mexicans.”

Race/nationality was a factor, but it wasn’t the defining one.  If they had been wealthy and good-looking Hispanic boys, sons of lawyers and doctors in Jackson or Memphis, then no one would have batted an eye. But to be seen like that with boys who had no money, no influence—that was unforgivable. And so, serving briefly as president of the sorority, I knew that I would have to ask her to leave.

Aside from the night we debated over whether to invite a black student, this was probably the most crushing moment for me as a college student.  She had done nothing that half the girls at Ole Miss hadn’t done.  But she had done it with poor boys, and that made it unforgivable.

I hoped by leaving the sorority, I could set myself apart from such obvious double standards.  But the reality was that the rules I had been asked to enforce weren’t just the private beliefs of a few individuals.  They were the status quo of our culture—and perhaps just the way the world works.  If you want to be successful, you have to look, dress, act certain ways.  Those who don’t live up will have doors closed to them.  In many cases, my sorority helped open doors for girls who would have otherwise been left out.  But not everyone could be saved.  Some would have the door shut to them.

While I can’t say definitively what has drawn readers to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for nearly 70 years, nor why it has appeared on middle school reading lists for the last 40-50 years, my guess is that many others have been drawn, like me, to its moral vision.

And yet, standing there with my mother in the Memphis department store in the early 90′s, with all my desire to rise above external status symbols, with all my desire to be different, to be on Francie’s side and in so doing tear down the wall…

I walked to the check-out counter.  I forked over my allowance.  And while I did find short-term gratification, you’ll be happy to know that those Guess jeans were perhaps the most uncomfortable jeans I ever owned and as such, cost me far more than $70 allowance in the end.

Did any of you feel this tension growing up?  Or do you see it in your kids?  The desire to dethrone money as an idol, and yet the inability to give up good things–especially things to make you more liked by your peers?  In all honesty, I’m probably more tempted by material things now…even though at least I now understand my desire for beautiful things isn’t bad in itself.  If you’d like to hear a fantastic sermon on money from another New Yorker, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s free download, Two Men with Money.

A few other posts on our site dealing with money–making it or saving it–are Janie’s series Three Cheers for Free Enterprise, and 10 Vacation Audiobooks for the Whole Family.  And to see the beginning of Behind the Bookcase, my postmodern conversion story, go to Behind the Bookcase: In Search of a Hiding Place.

COMMENTS

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16 Responses to Behind the Bookcase, Part 6: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  1. emily June 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Thanks, Laura! Please let me know what you think when you’re done. The book’s a rough read, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Still, it’s a touchstone for our culture, and one I think some kids and adults–especially editors like you–will benefit from.

  2. emily June 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Thanks, Laura! Please let me know what you think when you’re done. The book’s a rough read, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Still, it’s a touchstone for our culture, and one I think some kids and adults–especially editors like you–will benefit from.

  3. Laura Whelan June 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Emily,
    In what is surely not coincidence, I am in the middle of reading this book right now! I have never read it before, and I just happened to see it at the library and think, “Oh, that’s one of those books I’ve always wanted to read,” so I grabbed it. I won’t read your review until I’m done though–don’t want to be biased or find out what happens. I’m excited to finish and will read your review soon.

  4. Laura Whelan June 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Emily,
    In what is surely not coincidence, I am in the middle of reading this book right now! I have never read it before, and I just happened to see it at the library and think, “Oh, that’s one of those books I’ve always wanted to read,” so I grabbed it. I won’t read your review until I’m done though–don’t want to be biased or find out what happens. I’m excited to finish and will read your review soon.

  5. emily June 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Jenny, Katie, and Marlo,

    Thanks for the kudos! I am glad to know I’m not the only one who benefited from a constrained budget growing up….

  6. emily June 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Jenny, Katie, and Marlo,

    Thanks for the kudos! I am glad to know I’m not the only one who benefited from a constrained budget growing up….

  7. emily June 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Sheila, I really appreciate your comments. I didn’t give much thought to putting it in the middle reader category. I just read it when I was rather young, so I tossed it in there. I will look into when its generally read and reclassify if that’s appropriate.

    Secondly, in general just because I review a book doesn’t mean I recommend it. In fact, I think kids could probably read a lot less of the dark and brooding literature I did. My goal in Behind the Bookcase is actually more about cataloging what happened to me as I read certain books, not to recommend them. This is going to be an important point soon, since I’m planning to review some pretty scary stuff in the next few months.

    Thanks again for chiming in! I know what you mean about YA lit being dark…and I highly recommend Janie’s Turning on the Light for our general position on that.

  8. emily June 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Sheila, I really appreciate your comments. I didn’t give much thought to putting it in the middle reader category. I just read it when I was rather young, so I tossed it in there. I will look into when its generally read and reclassify if that’s appropriate.

    Secondly, in general just because I review a book doesn’t mean I recommend it. In fact, I think kids could probably read a lot less of the dark and brooding literature I did. My goal in Behind the Bookcase is actually more about cataloging what happened to me as I read certain books, not to recommend them. This is going to be an important point soon, since I’m planning to review some pretty scary stuff in the next few months.

    Thanks again for chiming in! I know what you mean about YA lit being dark…and I highly recommend Janie’s Turning on the Light for our general position on that.

  9. Marlo June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    I still struggle with “puffed sleeves” at times. The desire to have significance simply by wearing the right thing, driving the right vehicle, living in the right neighborhoods, etc. Aren’t they still temptations at times? I owned my first pair of Nikes in college because my parents were too busy being financially responsible to satisfy my desire for name brands. And to be fair, I didn’t ask for them because I didn’t want to put that sort of strain on the budget. At times it was painful to feel I didn’t have the “right” shoes or backpacks or whatever, but I’m thankful that it led me to the knowledge that my significance lies in a Savior.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this book. I’ve passed it up for too long and will be putting it on my to-read list.

  10. Marlo June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    I still struggle with “puffed sleeves” at times. The desire to have significance simply by wearing the right thing, driving the right vehicle, living in the right neighborhoods, etc. Aren’t they still temptations at times? I owned my first pair of Nikes in college because my parents were too busy being financially responsible to satisfy my desire for name brands. And to be fair, I didn’t ask for them because I didn’t want to put that sort of strain on the budget. At times it was painful to feel I didn’t have the “right” shoes or backpacks or whatever, but I’m thankful that it led me to the knowledge that my significance lies in a Savior.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this book. I’ve passed it up for too long and will be putting it on my to-read list.

  11. Sheila June 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    Sorry, Emily, I don’t have time to craft a web-worthy response. (So please delete this [not approve] after reading.) I’m just curious why you’d recommend this book for “middle readers.”

    Francie’s life is changed because her father lies to get her into a better school. His alcoholism is so discouraging! Francie also sleeps with her boyfriend, a sailor who picks her up on leave and then marries the girl back home.

    This is still a fine, classic, read, but more appropriate for high schoolers, in my opinion. (Lately I check where Sonlight homeschool curriculum puts it in. sonlight.com. They have it at grades 10-12.)

    Maybe an issue for another blog is when do we expose our children to the dark, sin-infested side of human nature? How can we guide their souls well? I want them to know hope. Is it necessary to plumb despair for this to be accomplished?

  12. Sheila June 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    Sorry, Emily, I don’t have time to craft a web-worthy response. (So please delete this [not approve] after reading.) I’m just curious why you’d recommend this book for “middle readers.”

    Francie’s life is changed because her father lies to get her into a better school. His alcoholism is so discouraging! Francie also sleeps with her boyfriend, a sailor who picks her up on leave and then marries the girl back home.

    This is still a fine, classic, read, but more appropriate for high schoolers, in my opinion. (Lately I check where Sonlight homeschool curriculum puts it in. sonlight.com. They have it at grades 10-12.)

    Maybe an issue for another blog is when do we expose our children to the dark, sin-infested side of human nature? How can we guide their souls well? I want them to know hope. Is it necessary to plumb despair for this to be accomplished?

  13. Katie in Ohio June 20, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Thanks for the great post!

  14. Katie in Ohio June 20, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Thanks for the great post!

  15. Jenny White June 20, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Emily,

    I had a similar experience when I was young. Except I wasn’t standing in a department store, I was standing in Sears shopping for school clothes with my Mom. I almost burst into tears while thinking “no one else in my school shops at Sears.” Like you, I felt the same pressure to dress a certain way at the private school I attended. And like you, I’ve also had the realization that ALL people have the same value and status–perhaps not in our culture, but in the eyes of God. And if we claim belief in Him, then our eyes and hearts should have the same acceptance.

    Thanks for sharing.

  16. Jenny White June 20, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Emily,

    I had a similar experience when I was young. Except I wasn’t standing in a department store, I was standing in Sears shopping for school clothes with my Mom. I almost burst into tears while thinking “no one else in my school shops at Sears.” Like you, I felt the same pressure to dress a certain way at the private school I attended. And like you, I’ve also had the realization that ALL people have the same value and status–perhaps not in our culture, but in the eyes of God. And if we claim belief in Him, then our eyes and hearts should have the same acceptance.

    Thanks for sharing.

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