Family Values Grow in Brooklyn
by Keith L. Runyon,
The Louisville Courier-Journal
Gannett News Service May 24, 1993
There's nothing more satisfying than discovering the joys of a book
you've known about for a long time - but somehow never got around to reading.
I've had just that pleasure in the last week as I became acquainted
with the Nolans of Brooklyn, central characters in Betty Smith's endearing
book, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Published in 1943, HarperCollins
has recently reissued the novel in an attractive paperback edition.
Certainly a novel with its distinguished history merits further attention:
- It was the first work of fiction by a woman to occupy first place
on the New York Times best seller list - 22 weeks in the No. 1 slot, 59
weeks in all.
- Then in 1945, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" became a popular
film, winning Oscars for actor James Dunn, who played the father, Johnny
Nolan, and for young Peggy
Ann Garner, as his daughter, Francie.
Betty Smith (1897-1972) was born in Brooklyn, but she did most of
her writing in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she had gone to study playwrighting
in 1938 - and stayed on. It was there, as a young divorcee with two daughters,
that she wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," recalling the New
York borough of her youth and vividly creating young Francie Nolan, whose
determination and basic decency make her every bit as appealing today as
she was in 1943.
In a time when so much energy is devoted to whether anyone cares
about "traditional" family values, the story of the Nolan family
is instructive. Johnny, the father, is a drunk. A sweet, well-intentioned,
God-fearing drunk, but a drunk all the same. And he can't hold down a job
so he picks up work as a singing waiter. Still, there's something endearing
about him that defies serious condemnation.
His wife, Katie, supports her family by scrubbing floors and ironing,
instilling in young Francie and her little brother Neeley the honor of
hard work and the love of learning. Encouraged by her own mother, an illiterate
Austrian immigrant, Katie reads to the children every night: one page of
the Bible and one page of Shakespeare. And from Katie's sister, Sissy,
the children learn about hope and imagination.
Sociologists today would denounce or pity the Nolans. They are dirt
poor, to be sure. And though the parents love their children, and treat
them pretty well, some would accuse Katie and Johnny of neglecting them.
And therapists would fret over the children - products of a "dysfunctional"
family. Co-dependents forevermore? Perhaps.
Yet, I come away from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" believing
that there was so much about the Nolans that was of immense, and lasting,
value. I cried when Johnny died on Christmas Day 1915, and I cheered when
Francie graduated the next spring. I felt pride when Neeley wore his first
long pants to his papa's funeral, and I was heartsick when Katie had to
break open her bank to pay the bills.
This is what memorable fiction is all about. Betty Smith's writing
is sharp and witty. And so very wise. For instance: At one point Katie
laments to her sister that Johnny is "a drunk." So? responds
the sagacious Sissy, "everybody's something."
This is a wonderful book - suitable for all ages - in which a young
girl's life emerges, like the leaves on the branches of the glorious tree
outside the window of her Brooklyn tenement.
It deserves to be read, and read again.
© 1993 Gannett Company, Inc.