Recommended by Rory Dowd
The tree is an ailanthus, a variety that is found all over Brooklyn, and is known for its resiliency. The narrator says “It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly, survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” The metaphor for the poor immigrant family that struggles to make it in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is obvious, but powerful. It’s a metaphor for the children running around Brooklyn and for the struggles that are so difficult but so common in impoverished communities.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels disproportionately old at this point when the narrator describes Williamsburg, Brooklyn as something other than a haven for Hipsters and Hassidic Jews. It’s hard to imagine Williamsburg, Brooklyn to be anything like Bettie Smith’s version of it and harder still to see the connection between the way it feels today and the way it did in the early 20th century.
But the neighborhood and the streets themselves are irrelevant – it’s the poor immigrant community that is the persisting center of the story, as expressed by the refreshing and idealistic innocence of Francie, who guides us through this world. It’s the metaphor that the novel starts with that I love most though – the resilient tree that can crack through cement and survive without sun or water, the most basic nutrients and elements of growth and life. There is something wonderful in this metaphor and the way that the author weaves it into the personalities of various characters. The use of a single metaphor that shadows an entire novel or story is a great American literary trait – from the green light and eyeglasses of The Great Gatsby to the rain in Farewell to Arms – and Smith employs it so powerfully here. I had no idea this would be such a great novel and was even more surprised that it would feel like such an American novel. Great American novels are always my favorite and this is no exception.