Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

For Christmas 2009 I received a copy of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had never read it before.  It was one of those titles that, as a librarian, I knew it should have read.  Knew that I should read--someday.  One that I remember friends reading in junior high and high school.  It's on so many all-time great reading lists, I felt like I must have been missing something.

If you know me, you know that sometimes my reading pile gets a bit out of control and unfortunately this lovely work got lost in the shuffle during 2010.  I finally picked it up in September and then decided I should find an audio CD of it for fear I would never finish it. So, at long last, I listened to Betty Smith's classic tale of childhood. (And, ahem, I did finish listening to it prior to Thanksgiving, but blogging about it, got lost in the shuffle, too.)

Two key thoughts struck me from reading this book.

1. It is one of the most beautifully written pieces of prose that I have ever read.  In my copy of the book, author Anna Quindlen answers the question "What is the book about?" by stating in the foreward: "The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human." It is eloquent and real.  Descriptions feel so vivid that the world of pre-WWI Brooklyn lives.  Its smells and sounds, its dirt, its harsh realities--they are alive in Smith's writing.  Quindlen also notes, "There is little need for embellishment in these stories; their strength is in the simple universal emotion they evoke." And that must be something of what struck me.  The story so simple, but Smith's writing pulls you in so dramatically that you can't help but laugh and cry and feel the Nolan family's struggles.

2.  However.   Can you guess what I'm going to pick at?  And really I'm just picking at the stereotype, not the writing.  Yep, that darned librarian stereotype.  The book begins and ends with Francie visiting the local library; Francie being determined to read each and every titles in the library starting in alphabetical order by title.  Here is her interaction with the librarian at the beginning of the story:

She stood the desk a long time before the librarian deigned to attend to her. "Yes?" inquired that lady pettishly.  "This book. I want it....She took the card, stamped it, pushed it down a slot in the desk.  She stamped Francie's card and pushed it at her.  Francie picked it up but she did not go away.
"Yes?" The librarian did not bother to look up.
"Could you recommend a good book for a girl?" 
 "How old?"
 "She is eleven."
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question.  A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked into a child's face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and friendly comment would have made her so happy.  She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge.  But the librarian had other things on her mind.  She hated children anyhow.  
And the librarian goes on to recommend one of the same two books she recommends each time Francie asks this question. 

Oh, how this scene made my blood boil! Had I not been in the car listening to it, I could have chucked the book across the room! Ah, but that is the tried and true stereotype.  And the book was published in 1943.  And I should be a bit more forgiving.  But it irritated me and made me sad.  Mostly it made me sad because I am a children's librarian and each and every day I work hard to defeat this stereotype and connect kids to books.  That is my rant today.  Sigh...

1 comment:

Sarah AJ said...

How have you not read this before now? It's my favorite book (well, now it's tied with A Room with a View, but it held the title solo for years). Sorry about the librarian thing, though. That must be maddening, kind of like that SAHMs sit around and do nothing all day and/or lead horribly unfulfilling lives.