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Betty Smith’s first novel is an American classic – and an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1943. Smith drew from her own experience growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century to create the character of Francie Nolan. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young girl learning to persevere – like the tree of the book’s title – and overcome the hardships of poverty. One of the first plainly-written novels about the lives of ordinary working-class Americans, it’s beloved as a story of what it means to be human. A Readers’ Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
- Olivia Golden Institute fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. and former assistant secretary for children and families, Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration
- Neely Tucker staff writer for The Washington Post magazine; author, "Love in the Driest Season," a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe.
- Deirdre Donahue book critic for "USA Today"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The New York public library chose "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" as one of the books of the century. In 1995, the coming of age story of young Francie Nolan was a social phenomenon when it was published in 1943. It's now considered essential reading in the cannon of American literature. Joining me in the studio to discuss the enduring appeal of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Neely Tucker of the Washington Post and Olivia Golden of the Urban Institute.
MS. DIANE REHMWe're expecting Deirdre Donahue of USA Today. I'm sure many of you have read the book, but even if you haven't, do join us 800-433-8850. This is a Readers' Review, so I invite your comments and questions. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to you, Neely Tucker.
MR. NEELY TUCKERGood morning. How are you today?
REHMI'm fine, thank you. And to you, Olivia Golden, good to meet you.
MS. OLIVIA GOLDENGood to be here, thank you.
REHMThank you. Neely, in a forward of our edition, Anna Quindlen writes "Nothing much happens in the novels nearly 500 pages." Would you agree with that?
TUCKERWell, nothing really dramatic happens in the fact that -- in the sense that somebody gets shot and the world blows up. It is in that way, sort of a very quiet novel. It's episodic and what happens is Francie grows up. And there's little adventures you could think of that almost, like, the Walton's. Did nothing happen on the Walton's?
TUCKERWell, John Boy sure thought so. And Francie sure thinks so. So you have little things that happen in the book, her dad gets drunk and comes home. Her mom has one adventure after another trying to pay the bills, she goes to school, she gets her nose busted. Things like that happen and it's a much more of a quiet day to day life thing happening.
REHMAnd tell us about the tree of the title.
TUCKERIt's the symbol of Brooklyn, you could say. It's a symbol of life itself and it's a symbol for Francie. Very early on -- it's a tree of heaven and I think it's -- in the first few pages of the book. And she writes that "The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree. Which looked like a lot of open green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky."
TUCKER"It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in tenements districts." I think what she returns to this, Betty Harris does, on about a 100 pages later...
TUCKERBetty Smith, I'm sorry.
TUCKERAnd she's talking about -- it's when Francie is born. And some neighbors tell her she's -- that -- tell her mom that Francie is very sick and they say, this is around page 94 or 5, if you guys are reading this...
REHMShe's almost blue and she's (word?) ...
TUCKERYeah, she is a sickly little...
TUCKER...Irish kid who's not...
TUCKER...doing well in the tenements. And, you know, then, as now, in a lot of poor areas, the big trick is getting to be five years old when the life expectancy in the United States, at the turn of the century, I think was about 49 years old. It's not because people didn't live to be 80, it's because everybody died before -- or a lot of people died before you got to reach the age of five. So the neighbors tell her that you'll never raise that one. They told her, her color ain't good. If the Lord God takes her, it'll be for the best.
TUCKERWhat good is a sickly baby in a poor family? There's too many children on this earth already and no room for the weak ones. And her mom says, don’t say that. She held her baby tightly. It's better not to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up out there in the grading. It gets no sun and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth and it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.
REHMNeely Tucker is a staff writer for the Washington Post, Sunday Magazine. He's the author of "Love in the Driest Season: A Memoir of Adopting a Baby in Zimbabwe." Turning to you, Olivia Golden, is this the first time you've read this book?
GOLDENIt is the first time. Even though my father grew up in Williamsburg about 25 years later, he came over as a baby from Eastern Europe. But I hadn't read this. I had -- it made me think, as I read it, of a book that I have always loved, of the Willa Cather books which take place a couple of decades earlier and many of which are about immigrants in the prairie states. But I had a couple of thoughts, thinking about the tree and that image. One is that, to me, the book, it's about Francie and her -- it's above all about Francie...
GOLDEN...it's a powerfully first person book.
GOLDENBut it's about her family. And I actually think quite a lot happens compared to what you might expect. Her father dies young, her -- you know, her mother remarries. I mean, there's sort of a fair amount of tragedy and drama in her extended family. But that's nested in the neighborhood. And to me, the aspect of the book I liked best was the -- was Williamsburg, was the neighborhood which was, you know, this is a picture of the last wave of immigration before our current one.
GOLDENIt's a picture of the first two decades of the 20th century, the German, the Irish, the newly arriving Jewish immigrants. And so it's a picture that, for many of Americans today, can feel distant and it can be hard for us to have that empathy and think about that with today's group of families who are having some of those same experiences. So I actually loved the setting for Francie and the tree.
GOLDENAnd the one thing that strikes me as not comparable between Francie and the tree and -- is that the tree is rooted there. It's success, it's reaching up toward the sky, stays there. She has to leave to succeed...
GOLDEN...and that's what happens at the end...
GOLDEN...of the book.
REHMAnd that is Olivia Golden. She's at the Urban Institute here in Washington. She's former assistant secretary for Children and Families at Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. She's also the author of the book titled "Reforming Welfare." (sic) You can join us 800-433-8850. Tell me, Olivia, if you having read this for the first time, appreciate why it has become a classic.
GOLDENWell, that's interesting. I think there were things I really liked about it and things I didn't like as much and that may -- some of that may go to what makes it a classic. It is very much about Francie. And to me, it holds the weaknesses as well as the strengths of how passionately the author is still the character. You know, this is her younger self. And so it seemed to me that Francie is fascinating but that her family is painted in a slightly more stereotyped and more sentimental way.
GOLDENAnd I was thinking about that point that we were just talking about, that at the end, Francie is going to grow up to be a writer and an artist. I mean, she's the younger self of the author. And I was thinking about how that affects how she sees the neighborhood and her choices. And I was thinking of the Willa Cather book "Song of the Lark," which is also about a young woman growing up very poor who discovers great talent, in that case, as an opera singer.
GOLDENAnd there the choices are more stark. You have to make a more stark choice where Francie hopes, at the end, she'll be able to keep her rootedness in her neighborhood and her family. But I thought that the picture of her and of the life and of the vividness in the neighborhood, was extraordinary and I could really see how much that could hold people.
REHMAnd joining us now, Deirdre Donahue. She's book critic for USA Today. Good morning to you, Deirdre.
MS. DEIRDRE DONAHUEHello Diane, good to see you.
REHMGood to have you. It's good to have you here. Tell us about the staying power of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
DONAHUEWell, it's interesting. I do think it's a fascinating classic for a lot of readers. It does not actually resonate that closely with me. I think what it is is, you know, the story of this young girl growing up in Brooklyn before World War. I, you know, her father's an alcoholic. But I have to say, it's interesting. I was fascinated -- I find that all the characters, in fact, the central character Francie is my least favorite and I found there was too much focus on her. I found my heart much more resonating with the doomed alcoholic father who gives her the gift of imagination.
DONAHUEI mean, in the brief period she has him, he actually is a wonderful father in those quiet moments when he calls her Prima, you know, Donna. The way he brings a magic into what is a really bleak, ugly world. I know, obviously, her mother has this titanium strength, you know, ability to hold -- I mean, here she is working heavily pregnant. But I do think that -- I think I found it the surround -- I found the sense of community, the sense of Brooklyn as a little world set apart that happened to be gigantic.
DONAHUEAmazing, I mean, I found kind of the -- almost the character of Brooklyn is one of the reasons -- that sense of these people who live so intensely in each other lives. The sisters -- it's not, you know, an occasional email, it's there at the house everyday...
DONAHUE...they don't every -- the neighbors, you know, every -- I actually thought the joy of communal living which is so different I think for most suburban kids, certainly for me, that you see this sort of life was lived very intensely and very ugly. And I actually think one of the things that young women resonate with is because it's one of the very few books you ever read where females, as pray, is really depicted. I mean, the -- you know, she's almost -- she's attacked, she's sexually violated, she's (word?). And this is all going on at a very young age. And I think there's a raw honesty in the way Betty Smith depicts the world that you don't find in many other books for young girls.
REHMYou know, it's interesting. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but in kind of a similar situation where the relatives were always there. Somebody was there every single day. Now, Francie has an aunt named Sissy who is not terribly well regarded because of her behavior with men, but she is totally beloved by Francie. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, more about "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
REHMWelcome back. Our Readers' Review for this month is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. Here's a fascinating email from Rachel. She says, "My understanding is that Betty Smith tried to publish this book as an autobiography but publishers rejected her until she turned it into a novel. I feel that reading it in this way makes sense of its episodic nature and how rich the atmospheric novel is. Neely.
TUCKERYeah, she had shopped it around chapters at a time and she actually entered it in a nonfiction writing contest. But she labeled it as a novel. So it's this sort of confused sort of origin thing, yeah, about where it came from.
REHMIt's sort of both, yeah.
TUCKERBut, yeah, it's heavily autobiographical and I don't think she makes any bones about it.
REHMAnd here's another email from Joan who says, "This book was my constant companion during childhood. I treasured my first edition, the one I read over and over. I was a quiet shy reader with a Johnny Nolan of a father, handsome, a bit of a ne'er-do-well. I will always be grateful for the moment Francie described when she saw an old man with his old ugly toes sticking through holes in his shoes and thought about how at one time he had pink little toes that his mother must've kissed and loved." Olivia.
GOLDENWell, I was going to say that I do think that the autobiographical nature of it is connected to moments like that and to why that reader loved it. And it's connected to the toughness of Francie's character that maybe part of what Deirdre was saying made you not like her quite as much. There's the fact that she's -- that she makes harsh judgments about people. She makes judgments sometimes that are harsh about herself. There she sort of thinks deeply about why she should hate those ugly feet and what they were.
GOLDENShe makes harsh judgments. Because I think a lot about public services I'm very struck that the nurse, the doctor, most of the teachers, the librarian who are all there in theory to help her, she observes very keenly and acutely their undertones of contempt.
REHMAnd they don't treat kindly, yeah.
GOLDENExactly. So that makes me think about is that still true today. And I actually think that this is 100 years ago in New York City. New York City has 100 years of history as a gateway for immigrants and poor people. It's not as true there, would be my guess, in the places I've been lately but true in other places. But I think that part of the power is that Francie is not -- other people may be sentimentalized but she's not somebody who is seeing joy alone and seeing positives everywhere.
DONAHUEWell, it's interesting. I feel so smart because there I did, I put memoir. This I -- you know, I'm sorry, I just -- this did not read to me at all like a novel.
REHMLike a novel.
DONAHUEThis read -- in fact, I thought part of the problem that I found, I find it a much more effective work to read as you go along and you -- because in the beginning I'm going, this is no 11-year-old girl. This is clearly someone looking back at her life and add -- it does not to me have the voice of a child. And there's a lot of books, you know, from "The Color Purple," where you see the character grow. This to me she starts out essentially with the same voice.
DONAHUEBut I also think that there's -- I really enjoyed it as a depiction of a world. And I enjoyed it in terms of the whole sort of, you know, some of the characters are just -- or some of the people, you know, Nick Garrity, the incredibly sort of sentimental saloon owner who yearns for the connection of the children. There's a lot of insight into human beings but it constantly is telling you things, not showing you things. I thought you could've honestly taken a good red pencil and taken out a third of the memoir material and this would've been a brilliant novel. But I still think it is a very powerful work. And...
REHMHere's an email from Kerry in Royal Oak, Mich. who says, "This is incredible. I just finished the book last week. As my husband and I struggle with under and unemployment, I find myself thinking often about Francie's courage and her mother's steely determination to survive. She is serving as a source of inspiration for me through these difficult financial times. Neely.
TUCKERYeah, I think there's a real point where you really start to root for Francie. And that's when you mentioned the scene with the doctor. And the doctor comes in to give her a vaccination. They -- she and her brother were -- they were supposed to go out and get cleaned up but her mom didn't take them down there. So they walked in. They'd been making mud pies, they were dirty, they were filthy. And the doctor sits there and discusses this with the nurse like she's not there. And she goes, these kids -- the doctor says they're filthy, they're nasty. How do they even live? And Francie just sits there and absorbs all this.
REHMAnd what about the nurse herself?
TUCKERAnd the nurse, who she could tell from her accent is from there, and sort of sells them out and says, yeah, I really don't know, Doctor. You know, and she's sort of gone over to the side like she doesn't know where she's from, right. And Francie at the end of this absorbs all this and then she stands up and says, you know, my brother's next in line and he already knows how dirty he is so you don't have to tell him. And that's the part where I thought that emotionally you really turn for Francie.
TUCKERAnd you were really -- she writes this book from the inside out. It's a technique of people who are marginalized or who are, you know, alienated, you might look at them down with contempt. She's looking back out with contempt at the people around her.
REHMAll right. One more comment and we'll open the phones, Olivia.
GOLDENWell, of course Francie is honest about the fact that she herself sometimes does what that nurse does. The teacher says to her, what country are you from as she's going through the poor ragged kids. And Francie says, I’m American because she's third generation. It's her grandparents who were born in Austria and Ireland. She wants to distinguish herself as better than the other ragged kids. And she's honest about that. That's one of her qualities as a writer is that she sees those impulses in herself too.
REHMThere's a strain of anti-Semitism which runs through this book, Olivia.
GOLDENYes, and I thought about that 'cause I'm Jewish. And my father lived in Williamsburg, as I said, 25 years later, the next wave. And most of the Jews in this book were earlier, you know, who were immigrants from the turn of the century. It's not so much that they're evil but they're very exotic and strange. They have strange customs, they look different, they have accents, they're a little frightening to the children.
GOLDENAnd I guess that again seemed to me part of the memoir quality. It is part of a neighborhood of people who are all marginalized and who are worried about who they feel better than and more American than. I think it's a human impulse but it's not one that you want to celebrate. And I think to some degree at least the book shares the parts where living in that world coarsens you, as well as the parts where it makes you strong and courageous.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. You'll need headphones for this. Let's go first to Jane. She's in Acton, Mass. Good morning to you.
JANEGood morning to you and thank you for this lovely Thanksgiving gift of this novel. I read it years ago. I grew up in Manhattan in the '40s and '50s in what was then a largely Jewish neighborhood. My mother grew up in Manhattan in the first part of the 20th century. And I loved her exploits from those times and I remember saying to my son, you know, if you wanted to know what Grandma's life was like read this book. And he was just captivated by it.
JANEWhat I particularly liked or loved is the fact that you get the feeling of the melting pot atmosphere. And, you know, all the people that were -- came in and congregated here and lived in this country. And I used to love to walk Manhattan on weekends. It's a walkable town or island, and I would see these little sections of immigrant people that were still there. It just -- I love the city and I love the book. I loved -- I felt for the mother and father. The mother never understood the father. And the father who was -- didn't have much hope and was full of pipedreams, that's probably what got him by. I thank you so much for reviewing this and have a happy Thanksgiving.
REHMAnd you are -- thank you. You are most welcome. Go ahead, Olivia.
GOLDENI was just going to pick up on that theme of the melting pot and New York's role in the melting pot. I mean, this book is a picture of the last great wave of immigration to the United States before the current one that we've had in the last 20 years. This is the last time -- the first two-and-a-half decades of this century is the last time we had so many immigrants. And now we have them again. And New York is one of the places that's been a gateway that whole time, remains a gateway and has learned a lot, I think.
GOLDENBut what strikes me about other parts of the country is that many Americans who are my age, this experience that they're reading about in the book is their grandparents' or their parent's experience, right.
GOLDENI'm in my 50s and for me, it was my father's and my mother's experience. But that was actually -- that's actually rare for my generation. It's more removed for most of us. So if the book can help people feel empathy for the immigrant communities of today, the children who are today's Francies and who are growing up in those -- in that same world dealing with that same adversity, I think that's a wonderful effect.
REHMNeely, let's talk about poverty and the extent to which Francie really understood that she was living a life of poverty.
TUCKERI think it makes an impression on her. Later she in a -- she imagines herself to be -- well, at one point she is writing a novel. And the novel that she's writing is about some extravagantly rich girl. So she's escaping, you know, through her imagination. So she understands that she's extraordinarily poor, that her father is -- early on she said she didn't quite realize -- there's a terrific little phrase where she says of herself at an early age, she didn't know that she was supposed to be ashamed of her father. She just loved him.
TUCKERAnd she'd sort of come to that realization a little later that she understands what being drunk is, which her father often is coming home. And there's a terrific scene you mentioned in the community and that shared sense of poverty that everybody's in each other's lives. There is no privacy. And as the -- there's the airshaft in which you can hear everything in the building, right. People are bopping on your floor and down on your ceiling. She watches, I think it's Frank, the guy wash his horse downstairs.
TUCKERThere's the -- going to the very end of the book she remembers from when she was smaller of watching and all the windows across the block, all the young girls washing out their arms in their bathroom. And that that's what the last scene of the book is. She's washing herself out and she's thinking, is there a little girl out there watching me do this? And it turns out there is. So that's -- there's this shared sense of we're all in this little hobble experience together.
REHMWhat about Francie's father, Deirdre?
DONAHUEWell, it's interesting. The first time I read the book, I absolutely kept thinking, man up. Stop drinking and get a job. I’m sorry. I had no sympathy for him whatsoever. It's just like, you know, I think actually it's that idea that, you know, I think I read as a teenager, it's like, parents don't act like this. This needs to stop. What's his problem? And now reading at 53, you suddenly realize this is -- you know, he's an absolute pathological alcoholic. He really needs an intervention.
DONAHUEThis is also way before AA. This is -- and it's -- I mean, I actually found -- and also it's funny, I found a great deal of sympathy. I had not realized they're 17 and 19 years old when they get old and they're so...
REHMI know it. I know it.
DONAHUEAnd they're -- this world is overwhelming to him. It all starts out so beautifully where they're cleaning the, you know, the school together. And yet it's -- he can't -- he doesn't have the titanium strength to handle it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you've just joined us, this month's Readers' Review, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. You know, I think it's important to go back to Katy and the fact that she stole her husband from her dear friend because she thought he was so neat. He was a good dresser, he sang, he danced. He was really a star early on. But somehow the two had totally different expectations of life. And when she, Katy, got pregnant they were both janitors at a school nearby. And instead of going to his job that night he got totally drunk, did not show up either by her side or at the school, lost his job. And that's the first step on to poverty, Neely.
TUCKERYeah, I mean, he's -- it's -- I think you tend to love him. I kind of did. He's sort of hopeless, but the reason you love him is because Francie loves him. That's the reason that you tend to because you see him through her eyes. And her judgment of him is pretty gentle all things considering. She could've very easily written this that, you know, my dad was a drunk and my mom, god love her, just did everything and men are useless and they're stupid and god knows I want to get away from him. She loved her dad.
REHMShe loved him.
TUCKERAnd I think that's perhaps the most merciful judgment she has in the book.
REHMLet's go to Leslie who's in Orlando, Fla. Good morning.
LESLIEHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
LESLIEI wanted to talk about the father. This book ranks up there for me with the top three, "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Outsiders" and a Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it in 5th grade and I think the father just -- talking about him and Francie's perception of him, the fact that she would go through and write in her journal that he was sick again today. And then her mom made her, you find out later, go back and change the word drunk to sick. And I think this book really resonates with a lot of people who grew up with people who have substance abuse problems. So I just -- I'll take your comments off the air. Thank you.
REHMI'm glad you called, Leslie. Deirdre.
DONAHUEThat was -- that I thought was one of the most perceptive and interesting moments that she mentioned 'cause Francie's mother Katy is switching -- is turning the mattress and she finds the dairy. And she goes through the diary and the one thing she demands that Francie do is everywhere it's sick -- she obviously had been writing, daddy came home drunk tonight, you know, and she makes her put sick in. And I think that's sort of the element of shame that as...
REHMAnd self deception. Not only shame, but self deception. Katy did not want to think of her husband as a drunk.
GOLDENSee, I saw that differently.
DONAHUEAnd the scene with the pneumonia that they demand at the end it be written down he didn't die of acute alcoholism. He died of pneumonia, you know.
GOLDENSee, I saw that differently. I didn't see it as shame. I saw it as the fact that the two of them are effective parents. They're different in lots of other ways but they're translating this poverty and distress in a way that shields Francie and Neely. I mean, and that that's part of what's going on...
REHMWe haven't even talked about Neely yet...
GOLDENAll right. But the part...
REHM...the favored child, the little boy.
GOLDENA little bit, although the -- I mean, I guess I think of things -- I think of the changing drunk to sick as like what the mother does when they run out of food and she tells them they're North Pole explorers. That children experience the distress and the stress of their world through their parents. And these two, while flawed in their own ways individually, were actually very effective in many ways building a world for their children.
REHMOlivia Golden. She is at the Urban Institute. Neely Tucker, staff writer for the Washington Post Sunday magazine. Deirdre Donahue is book critic for USA Today. Our Readers' Review for this month, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
REHMAnd here's another email, this one from Beth, who says, "I would point out the importance that education played in shaping Francie's life and the opportunity she had because she was able to switch schools because her father fraudulently enrolled her in a school outside of the district in which they lived. So happy for Francie, but this was an interesting example of ignoring the law to improve the life of your child." What do you think, Deirdre?
DONAHUEI say go for it.
DONAHUEI think that's one of the things that I liked about the book, the sense that Betty Smith makes it clear these people are just struggling to get by and they have to do what they have to do to get ahead. And at least the father recognizes. He can't afford a house in that district, so in fact he makes this conscious decision that he will in fact -- he writes the flowery -- a letter. The little girl goes back and forth to school 48 blocks every day, but the mother is insistent. She can't just take a lunch and eat it at school. She's not spending enough time with her family.
DONAHUEWhich I actually thought was the mother asserting herself and the importance of this bond as the sort of family unit. I think it's -- but I also thought one of the most effective scenes was it's the grandmother who can barely speak English, is completely illiterate, who absolutely has never had a child graduate from high school, much less I believe grammar school. Literally this is the woman who says -- I believe it's the night that Francie is born. You have to get, you know, the Bible and Shakespeare.
REHMAnd read every single night from those books.
DONAHUEAnd it's interesting because they get the King James Bible, the Protestant Bible.
REHMThe Protestant Bible.
DONAHUEEven though they're all devout Catholics.
REHMEven though they're Roman Catholics, yes.
DONAHUEAnd Sissy gets her Gideon's Bible during an assignation with an attractive married man.
GOLDENWell, I also found the emphasis on education fascinating at the same time that Francie leaves school in eighth grade to go and work so that it's some mix of the library, the regents, New York State having a regents exam that lets you, you know, succeed. And I do think this is an area where the world has changed a little bit for the better. I mean, my father used to talk about city college, the New York public library in his day too, as well as the public schools as being the way that he was able to move ahead.
GOLDENBut this was a world where there were so many barriers in the way of achieving that education that it was very much an individual story of overcoming it rather than trying to create a world where that ought to be an opportunity for everybody or at least for many.
REHMHere's a caller from St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Frances.
FRANCESHi, good morning. Actually my name is Mary Frances and I've been called Francie all my life because I was named after Francie Nolan. And my father told me that when I was very young, read the book to me when I was really young. And I think the book resonated with him because his father was a lot like Mr. Nolan. He was a son of Irish immigrants, alcohol was an issue. And I just want to say that what resonated with me -- I don't remember all the details that you all have today, but what resonated with me was that people are complex. They're not all good or all bad. And then even where there's weakness, there can be wonderful things.
FRANCESAnd I ended up spending 40 years as a social worker working with vulnerable people. And I have seen such wonderful -- I don't romanticize poverty, but I think the demonization and the marginalization of people that are poor and addicted today does no good because there are wonderful strengths in all kinds of people. So thank you for the show. I don't hear my name said that often.
REHMFrances, thank you for calling. Neely, do you want to comment?
TUCKERWell, yeah, I feel your pain there. I was telling you that this has to be the only book in the English language that I know where Neely is the main character.
TUCKERSo, yeah, I read the book.
REHMWhat is your entire name?
TUCKERMy entire name is Neely.
TUCKERI'm not a Cornelius.
TUCKERAlthough my friends -- I got my maternal grandmother's maiden name.
TUCKERShe was (unintelligible)
REHMHere's an email from Megan in St. Joe, Ind. She says, "I treasure this book so much so, I have a quote from the book tattooed on my foot. Here's the tattoo...
TUCKERIt's true love.
REHM...they were made out of thin invisible steel."
DONAHUEOh, wow. That is great.
REHMHow about that? How about that?
GOLDENSo for her, it's the inspiration of the toughness of those women and back to the appeal, I mean, to the extent that many models for young women are about graciousness, charm, pleasing. I mean, this book is explicit that the model is about toughness.
REHMToughness. Let's talk about Sissy for a moment. I love Sissy.
DONAHUEI thought she's one of the reasons life has saver. I mean, that she -- I can recognize there's clearly something going on because, in fact, Francie's grandfather on her mother's side is a monster. He's a horrible, angry, bitter man who hates everyone, most of all his saint of a wife and his three daughters.
DONAHUEPerhaps, you know, pulling up the old armchair -- psychological armchair, Sissy gives her -- Sissy is very free and fond with her love. And she's married. She's divorced. She has some mysterious physical condition where she's born ten children and they all die. She ends up -- but it's not just like the three husbands, she calls all of them John. At some point, you kind of go, hmm, 'cause they're -- I think that...
DONAHUE...one of the subtexts of the books is all along it's Sissy who's madly in love with Johnny. And actually I think that -- I think Johnny has fatal charm. I think he's very handsome...
DONAHUE...the -- you see -- when they describe Neely, he looks like the young Johnny. But Sissy is -- she's not a victim, though. She's not.
DONAHUEShe's very much sort of like she has a natural sort of attractiveness and vitality that like her husband's beating the horse that he's supposed to be the milk man and he gets kicked because he does something terrible to the horse. And then she takes on the horse. The horse loves her. The men at the -- I mean, and yet it's not a joke. It's like a -- and her warmth and her wonderful qualities that she gives to her niece and nephew really save their lives, because in fact she's the one who goes to the school and tells the teacher...
DONAHUE...you leave my daughters alone, you leave my niece alone.
REHMBecause the teacher was doing what?
DONAHUEThis is -- that I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. It's that everyone in the hierarchy, the teachers at the top of the hierarchy, they're nicest to the rich, little girls and little boys. They're incredibly mean to the poor kids. They're meanest to the handicapped kids. And the tragedy is the kids mimic it. The poor kids try to, you know, butter up the rich kids. It's like one long chain of abuse.
GOLDENWell, I just had two thoughts about Sissy. One was I totally agree about how charming she is. I mean, she's -- when she steals the book after...
GOLDEN...Francie I thought in part because she undercuts the moralism that you sometimes feel elsewhere. But the other thing I would say is that this is another one of those moments when Francie does know about the neighborhood, the social context where maybe the actual 15-year-old wouldn't. And this is a woman who bears ten babies that die. Until for the 11th, she's now married to somebody who has a little bit of money and she uses a doctor.
REHMAnd she's in a hospital.
GOLDENAnd she has a doctor.
GOLDENAnd it turns out to be very simple to save that baby. And of course what you think, which is heartbreaking, is that all of her earlier babies could have lived. And so to me that takes you back to what poverty is and the fact that the ten babies who died and that Johnny Nolan was the one who lived to the oldest age of all of his brothers isn't just about personal character. It's also about the context and where they lived.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Little Hocking, Ohio. Good morning, Judy.
JUDYGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
JUDYI'm 77 years old and my mother would be 105 if she were alive. And she always told me that "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was the best book she ever read and wanted me to read it, but I never did.
JUDYShe was not from an inner city environment, rather a small town situation on the plains of Nebraska. But she did teach inner city school children for a long time in Cleveland and that may have helped her relate to the book. But in any case, I just wanted to let you know that this program has inspired to go get the book and read it.
REHMI'm so glad, Judy. I think you will truly enjoy it. We're going to talk now about one scene in the book and that's the Christmas tree, because it was very powerful that this Christmas tree dealer saves -- he always has some trees left over. And what happens, Neely?
DONAHUEOh, it's amazing. It's the scene where there they are and they have this rather cruel tradition in Brooklyn that on Christmas eve, you -- they can't sell them at the -- they can't sell the Christmas trees anymore, so the guy throws them. And if you can catch -- if you can literally block and keep standing as someone hurls a Christmas tree at you, you get to take it home for free.
DONAHUEWell, you have a 10 -- you have this 10-year-old girl and her little brother. She looks absolutely starved and he's absolutely cherubic. And the guy, you know, and there's some like big pumpkin or some bully of the group, let me do it. And the guy -- and that's where I think you see the subtlety. The guy's, you know, cursing at them. And, no, he lets them -- and he does not -- he has this whole moment where he thinks I should just throw it at them gently, let them -- but then everyone will and then my children will starve because no one will pay for their Christmas trees. So he hurls it at them...
DONAHUE...and they stand up and he curses them, get out. You know, but the little -- Francie hears the voice inside, which is actually saying, you know, God bless, it's okay. And you see sort of Francie's fortitude and you see the fact that these people, you can't just be a nice person to get by. When everyone's scrabbling at the bottom of the heap, you have to be tough.
GOLDENAnd Francie has deliberately picked a big tree...
DONAHUEA ten foot.
GOLDEN...because she wants to bring home a big tree more than she wants to not be bruised. And again it's that steel and determination that's the appealing quality she has.
DONAHUEDid -- oh, did anyone else be fascinated by the scene with the doll, Mary. That's when I really liked Francie. Remember the scene with the rich kids. And that remind me of many private school events even today where you go give things to poor children. A wealthy girl is up there and there's all -- you're allowed to say, okay, this beautiful young girl has a fancy red doll called Mary. And she's donating it to this basket for poor children.
DONAHUEAnd they say whoever says -- whoever -- any poor child here named Mary can have the doll. Please come up. And Mary, no one else. There's tons of Marys in this group. No one will do it. She not realizing her real name is Mary Frances Nolan gets up, lies, mine, you know, takes it. And everyone goes, beggar, you know. And so I found the depiction of the -- sort of the...
DONAHUE...well, the class, but also that they have their own pride. I loved it when she -- 'cause she's gonna get what she needs even though she sacrifices her pride in the group.
TUCKERYeah, there's -- I mean, down to getting the bread, you know, the throwaway bread at the beginning of the book, I mean, that becomes a (unintelligible)
REHMAll right. To Chapel Hill, N.C. Good morning, Terry.
TERRYHi. I'm calling from Chapel Hill where Betty Smith lived. Her father always gave her the vision that she would live where there were lots of trees and she lived here. She started writing the "Tree Grows in Brooklyn" when she had money to send her daughters back to the mother for the holiday, but was alone and started writing it here.
TERRYShe taught at University of North Carolina. And she donated all of her papers including hundreds of letters from soldiers who were allowed to select this book to read while they were overseas. And Valerie Yow, a biographer in Chapel Hill, has combed through all of the papers and written a definitive biography called "Betty Smith: The Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." So while she's alone, she starts writing that in largely memoir and starts with a Christmas tree scene.
REHMThat's very interesting. Terry, I'm glad you called. Neely, any comment?
TUCKERYeah, it's interesting that her life after she wrote this book did not necessarily become a lot happier. She made a mint off this book. In 1945 there were three million copies in print just in English. In 1945 she made then $109,000 which in today's dollars is more than a million. She sold the movie rights, we haven't talked about that, for 55,000 and hated herself for the rest of her life at how little she sold it for. That's the equivalent of $650,000. So she did really -- she wound up being okay. She got a management company to pay her more or less $30,000 or about $300,000 a year out of her savings, so she lived okay.
TUCKERBut she had a very turbulent life during this time. You talked about writing the book. She was seeing one guy, in love with the guy in Montana. She was married for the second time, which didn't work out either. And she was seeing him. It's this very turbulent life that she has.
REHMIsn't that interesting. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What you're saying, Neely, is that somehow this novel/memoir did not give her peace.
TUCKERIt didn't give her peace. It gave her fame and money which beats...
TUCKER...poverty. I mean, when she was -- she wrote this book when she was about 47 or 48 and she was almost destitute. I mean, she was reviewing...
REHMWhen she wrote it.
TUCKERWhen she wrote this book. I mean, she got an advance for, what was it, $200 because she was in the hospital having a kidney stone operation in 1942, the year before the book came out. So when she was 47 or 48, a mid career, midlife person, she was jaw droppingly poor. It was hand to mouth.
TUCKERThen she became pretty much fabulously wealthy. She was extremely busy. She loved the fame. She loved the celebrity for awhile. You always love the money. The celebrity gets a little tiresome. But she had this very turbulent personal life. And you really got the idea, or I did anyway, that, you know, that the Francie in the book did not grow up to live a nice, happy life in the suburbs.
TUCKERShe stayed a really tough broad through, you know, throughout the whole mix.
DONAHUEBut she's obviously, I mean, codependent. You know, she's an adult child of an alcoholic. I mean, you know, the whole thing when she talks about with the father, like, yeah, this whole the fact that her -- that, you know, she's obviously no doubt -- she talks about wanting to be needed and you kind of go, that sounds like a recipe for finding, you know, inadequate men who are gonna disappoint you.
DONAHUEI think it was clear that she was obviously someone -- you see the whole pattern is already established that, you know, Neely has the mother who absolutely worships him. She's always looking for the unavailable man that she's gonna save just because, you know, she couldn't save daddy, but she's gonna save, you know, the next charmable...
REHMAnd at the end of the novel, doesn't she fall in love with somebody and then 48 hours later and he goes off and marries somebody else?
DONAHUELee, yes, hatefully, yes. And the idea he then takes that letter and shows it to his, you know, fiancé, you know, that she obviously has enormous unmet emotional wounds from childhood.
REHMDeirdre Donahue of USA Today, Neely Tucker of The Washington Post Sunday magazine, Olivia Golden of the Urban Institute. The book we've been talking about "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a wonderful read for any age and I know you'll enjoy it. I hope you have a grand Thanksgiving everyone. We'll have a couple of our favorite rebroadcasts for you in the next couple of days. Back on the air with you on Monday. Stay safe. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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