Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Date Finished: July 13, 2008 #40
Pages: 483
Rating: 3.5/5

Set during the span of 1901 to 1918, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming of age story of a young girl, Francie. While Francie is like many of the other children in her neighborhood in terms of extreme poverty, it immediately becomes clear that Francie is special--she has a desire to make meaning out of her life and move beyond her situation to live out her dreams. The tree that grows outside of the tenement which she lives in becomes a symbol of Francie's life--so unlikely that something can grow on so little but surely does.

Much of this book is a description of the daily lives of Francie and her younger brother Neeley and the struggles that they endure with a drunk father, a mother who works herself to the bone, and the fact that they can rarely make ends meet. In some respects it reminded me a lot of Angela's Ashes, but I really grew to love Francie's spirit and sheer determination to learn all that she can and change her situation. Throughout all of this she is challenged by her peers, her teachers, and even her family; Francie sometimes looses hope, gives up on God, and becomes utterly discouraged, but she proves to be a fighter. In a way it was a good change to read about the lifestyle that Francie grew up in since it seems that so many of the books I have read in this period focus mostly on the well-to-do, educated upper classes. It served as an important reminder that the most crucial part of the early twentieth century for many Americans was not finding the perfect mate.

For the most part I enjoyed the book and the story, but really I felt it was too long. The book covers 17 years (well, a little more if you count the time devoted to the courting of Francie's parents), and while I think that the length of time covered was perfect there were a lot of extraneous details that could have been either briefly covered or left out. Ha ha, I feel like I am not doing this book justice by writing only a few little paragraphs and not even giving any details but there is just so much! Most everything that happens in the book helps shape Francie's character and although at times her growth was not easy to recognize (maybe because the book was so drawn out!), I really loved how everything fit together at the end of the novel.

This book was actually a selection for a first book club meeting (IRL) and am hoping it will be a good one for discussion. There are certainly a ton of different themes that are explored in the book including, of course, poverty, religion, work ethics/unions, class systems, love and male-female relationships, family life, etc etc. Does anyone have any suggestions for a successful face-to-face book discussion?? Are there things that have worked well in your IRL book clubs that you could pass on to a newbie?? I'd love to hear any suggestions you can throw my way. :)

Also reviewed by:
Raidergirl3; Corinne; Kim L.; Laura; Alison


Literary Feline said...

I've been wanting to read this one for some time now. It sounds like a book that will make for a good discussion. I hope your book group discussion goes well!

I wish I had some suggestions for you in regards to your book group, but I've never been in a face to face group before. :-(

Laura said...

First of all-yay for finishing! But, I wonder if the fact that you "had" to read it quickly made it seem too long, or if you would have felt that way anyways?? I hope there is good discussion tomorrow! This is one of my favorite books I've read all year, but I can understand that some may find it a bit dull, since there isn't any huge action, love interest, mystery, etc. We'll see! I'm glad you didn't absolutely hate it though!

1morechapter said...

I'm sorry you didn't like this one more. It's one of my favorites!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Lit Feline - I hope it makes for good discussion as well. I certainly think there are a lot of things we can talk about but I'm not sure how timid people will be (myself included!) this being our first "real" meeting.

*Laura - I did like it! And no, I think it would have been the opposite if I had read it over a longer period of time--I think it would have felt really long then! And don't worry--I'm pretty sure my selection will be sucktown for everyone; I'M really worried. :)

*3M - I did enjoy it, I think it was just easier for me to pick out some of the things I didn't like. I'm really glad I read it, I just wish it was a little bit shorter.

Holly said...

Thanks for reviewing this one! I have been hearing about it for a little while and never looked into it enough to even know what it was about.

I've been in a face to face book group for about a year and half now. I think the format works out pretty well. We meet at a Panera bread once a month around dinner time. We all get our food and then start our discussion. This way no one has to worry about the stress of hosting at their house, coming up with food options everyone will like, or feel bad if people don't show up.

Our group tends to be a little flighty and out of the 10 or so members if we get 5 to show up that's a good turn out. But there are 2-3 of us that do show up every time so we just enjoy each other's company if its a smaller group.

We pick books every three months. We each have the opportunity to email book suggestions with a short synopsis to the woman who runs the club. We each give her our top three choices out of about 10 suggestions. She compiles all the votes and then figures out the top three picks. Those are our books for the next three months.

That way it's not one person's responsibility to pick the book.

That's what works for our group, just wanted to pass it along. Have a great time with your new group!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I loved this book! We did it in my book club last year, and mostly everyone enjoyed it.

If you need book club tips, I'm happy to help - I've been running a successful and growing book club for three years. Feel free to check out my blog ( or email me if you have any questions (SharingMyStory yahoo com)

Jeane said...

This is one of my favorite books.I always admired (of course) how Francie loved books and aspired to be a writer.

Katherine said...

This is one of my ALL TIME favorite books. I know, I say that about a lot of what I read, but in this case, it's definitely true. I just love Betty Smith's writing... its too bad she didn't write more.

Nikki in Niagara said...

I really must read this book someday. I remember having the book on my shelf during my teen years but never did read it.

Darlene said...

Hey Trish, I read this one a few years back and really enjoyed it a lot. I agree a little shorter might have been better but I sure loved Francie. Glad you enjoyed it and great review!

Debi said...

I've long felt this was a book I "should" read. You just turned it into a book I "want" to read. Thanks, Trish!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Holly - Thanks so much for the advice and coincidentally our first meeting was at Panera. :) The meeting went really well. We had four of us show up, but honestly I liked the smaller group better than a bigger group. We have decided to each pick a book and "host" for the month--that way not one person is picking all of the books. So, if you have 10 people and 10 choices--do you read the books choices from people who don't regularly attend?

*Heather - the book meeting was really successful, I thought, for our first go and like you most everyone really liked it! When you meet do you guys have some sort of discussion questions already thought up or just fly by the seat type of conversation about the book?

*Jeane - Yes, I loved Francie's love for education and reading--it made her very easy for me to relate to.

*Katherine - You can have more than one favorite...right? I used to say that about Christmas songs "ooooh, this is my favorite" until my husband made me pick one. :) Have you read any of Smith's other books? I haven't heard anything about them...

*Nicola - It was a very enjoyable book and I think it has a little something that everyone can relate to. Definitely pick it up!

*Dar - Ha ha, I'm all about the short books. :) Actually I've read a few that I wish were longer but this one had SO many details. Francie is great, isn't she?

*Debi - I think this is a very like-able book--definitely one that isn't tedious or dense (although it is long). I saw that you have this as a choice for the decades challenge--probably a more enjoyable read than All the King's Men (not to discourage you!!).

Corinne said...

Too bad I am reading this too late :) ANYWAY, here I go adding my two cents.

For my IRL book club, I find the book discussion most interesting when whomever has hosted comes to book club with some background info - either about the author or the time period or something to give us some context (we actually do it where the hostess provides refreshments that go along with the book i.e. pecan pie when we read Cold Sassy Tree). Then that same person is supposed to have discussion questions ready. We don't always need them, but some books require more guidance to get you to delve :)

Hope that wasn't completely random :)

Holly said...

Sorry Trish, I guess I didn't explain that very clearly. :-) Four times a year we give book suggestions to our leader. Usually we only have 10 total suggestions from the whole group each time its time to vote. After the list goes out to everyone. We each vote for our top three choices out of the 10 or so. Our leader than tabulates the votes of everyone. The top three books with the most votes are our next three months worth of books. Does that make sense? :-)

Terri B. said...

I've been wanting to read this. Maybe I can fit it into the TBR 2009 Challenge! Nice review.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Corinne--not too late! We'll be meeting in a month with a book that I'm afraid will be a little less reader friendly than this one. The idea for the background info is great!! I'll definitely have to keep that in mind.

*Holly - My brain is a little tired as of late, so it was probably my fault for misunderstanding. ;) I was in an online bookclub that handled the selections in sort of the same way that you described.

*Terri - Ha ha! Already thinking about 2009 challenges, huh? Actually, I was thinking about the 2009 TBR Challenge earlier today as well. Yikes!!

Ana S. said...

I keep seeing this book being mentioned, but until now I didn't know what it was about. You're right, books set in this time period do seem to mostly focus on the well-to-do. It's good to have access to the other side of things as well. It's too bad the book was too detailed at times, but it still sounds like a good read.

I've never been a member of a book club so there isn't much I can say, but good luck for your first meeting!

Anonymous said...

This has always been one of my favorite books - I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it more!

Anonymous said...

I read this one during college, as an "favorite book ever" exchange with my freshman roommate. I enjoyed it more than it seems like you did, but I didn't remember most of the plot points until just now. The one thing I did remember was a quote (don't remember the actual quote, of course), along the lines of "Francie didn't understand why more people didn't take up chemistry as a religion."

I wandered over here from B&b Ex Libris - I've enjoyed reading your blog!

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to read this one. It's currently in my Paperspine queue (oh, btw... have you seen? I'm doing a Paperspine membership giveaway on my blog). I only added it last week, though, so it might be a while yet (then again, maybe not... I always fuss with that so much).

Anonymous said...

I've got this one on one of my challenge lists, in fact it might be your challenge. I also just picked it up secondhand for really cheap and in really good condition and was excited to find it. And maybe I'm behind the times but what does IRL stand for? I seriously can't figure it out. ;)

Jeanette said...

I started reading this when I was a teenager but gave it up after only a few pages. I need to pick it up again because I have a feeling I will really like it if I give it another chance.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Nymeth - the first meeting went really well, so I'm looking forward to getting further into it with the other gals. :) I think you'd like this book! And I hate to sound like too many details is a bad thing, because it isn't! I think it was just all of the different tangents the author went on.

*Bookchronicle - I did enjoy it, I just didn't love it. ;) I'm glad so many others have, though.

*fyreflybooks - Ha ha, that is a great quote! Thanks for coming by. :)

*Misa - I need to check out paperspine; I don't know anything about it. Is it like a netflix for books?

*Natasha - In Real Life. It took me a while to figure it out as well. I hope you like this one!!

*Jeanette - Ohhhh, I don't think I would have liked this one when I was younger either for all of the details. But everyone seems to really love it so maybe its time for you to give it another chance?

Joy said...

I read this with a book group right before I started my blog. I rated it a 3.75/5, but seem to have better memories of it than that. Hmmm. Anyway, here's a Reading Guide that may help with a f2f group. (just an option)

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Joy - my thoughts on a book will change over time--sometimes for better and sometimes for worse (most times for better and I could see that happening with this one). We've already had our meeting for the book and all went well, but I'll have to check out such sites for future meetings--especially when I'm facilitating!

Kim L said...

Yay, glad you finished it in time for book club! That was funny that you thought of Angela's Ashes while reading it as well. I just thought this book had such great characters in it. I've still had the characters of Johnny, Katie and Francie in my head.

As far as your bookclub, so far the one I'm part of just kind of talks about what they all thought of the book. No one has brought in any questions to discuss. I get to pick for next month, and I might bring in some questions to ask, because I think it would probably move the discussion along a little better.

Karen Beth said...

I saw a woman reading this a few days ago in an airport while my husband and I were waiting for a delayed flight. Thought of you. :)

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Kim - The book we are going to be discussing next month might need a little direction as well since I'm guessing it will be very different from what most are used to reading (The God of Small Things). Hopefully it goes well, though!

I really liked the characters as well--especially Francie. Were you able to finish in time for your meeting?

*Karen Beth - :) I started to read this one on the plane also! Have you read this one?

andrea said...

Does anyone know which chapter in A Tree That Grows in Brooklyn is entitled "A Christmas Wish"

Thank you!

Amanda said...

This is a wonderful book and we read it for my book club back in January. I think all those themes you mentioned were good ones, and I'm sure I'm too late here to help with the book club, so I won't do that. ;)

I didn't feel the book was too long. What really got me was how fast time went after she got older. We discussed this in our group, how maybe Betty Smith did this on purpose to show how time feels like it speeds up when you get older. But really, it felt more like she just needed to wrap up the book, and quickly.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Andrea - Sorry--my book doesn't have chapter headings. Could this perhaps be a segment that is anthologized as a short story?

*Amanda - Ha ha--yes, too late for the bookclub. :) Good observation for a reason why the time goes faster when she is older--I hadn't thought of that! I did like this one, but I didn't love it. I guess that happens, though.

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