One Saturday when I was 11 or 12, I asked my father to recommend a book for me, and he came back some time later, after having given it obvious careful thought. It turned out to be just the right book for me: a battered copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
I picture myself on my bed, curled around the book, or sitting up, my mouth dry from nerves. I was in the world of Brooklyn, which was so remarkably like my own street in New York City, and Francie was 11 just like me, and she walked through her neighborhood and noticed the secret things I noticed. Up until these pages, I never imagined that anyone else thought about such things: the faces and hands of the shopkeepers, the personality of candy, the interesting way coins felt in your hand. Francie was alone like me, but in some way she wasn't lonely; nor was I, really: We shared a kind of pioneer quality, drinking in life beyond our own small apartments. She loved her father most of all, her father who was an alcoholic, although no such word was used in the book. We only knew how he acted when he drank, and when he was sleeping it off, and how kind and grand he was toward his daughter, and how drawn-in and bitter his wife was. Through these descriptions we came to know the presence of alcohol. I was guided along the landscape of this family life by the narrator, who was alert and wise, and never skipped over what we (Francie and I) felt. Through this widening, clear lens, I glimpsed my own life, and the presence of alcohol in my family too, even though in my house the bottles were kept hidden. And the immensity of love, the tragedy intertwined with the love a daughter has toward a doomed father, and the love—but scary, unacknowledged dread, too—toward a mother.
Sometimes I would close the book and stare at the name of the author, Betty Smith. I did not like that her name was on the cover of the book, because its presence was a reminder that the book wasn't real, and had been made by one, mere person. I preferred to think only of the narrator, who was keen and generous, somehow, and all of the characters, whom I felt I knew. When I closed the book for the night, I trained myself to avert my eyes from the author's name.
How was this book, with all its reality and sadness, different from Walk Two Moons and the other problem novels I've read?
When Francie's father died, something in me collapsed. It set off dreams of my own father in a coffin; the dreams persisted for years. It must have given form to feelings that had been floating in me previously, but up until the moment of reading, the feelings had been underground, lurking. Suddenly the prospect of a father dying—my father—came clearly to mind. It became an obsessive worry. I remember lying curled on my bed, crying so hard I felt my face turn inside out. What if I were left, like Francie, with only a bitter mother? For the first time, I thought consciously about the "future" and the prospect of a life that would inevitably include loss. I bit the fleshy part of my arm for comfort. But whom could I turn to? I spoke to no one about this experience. If I had tried to explain why I couldn't stop crying, what could anyone have said? How can anyone offer comfort about the death of a character in a book?
And yet there was something full about it all, brimming, exciting, alluring. The book was bigger than the tragedy; it was close and protective in that world, as well as tragic. Aunt Sissy, for example, who gave Francie shiny pennies as a gift; the kindness and ingenuity of this episode has stayed with me all these years. She and some other adults were portrayed as stable and clear-thinking—different than any of the adults in Walk Two Moons; there, the adults, while zany, interesting, even loving, were also portrayed as very unpredictable, and never satisfyingly protective.
The book portrayed a whole life, not just one driven by a "problem." The death occurred in the middle of the book, not at the end like the deaths in Walk Two Moons. Francie's father's death was followed by the chronicling of her ongoing experiences, as she picked up the pieces and found some peace, so that her life widened again.
The book created a dome around itself, and I felt enclosed within it. The truth was that I liked the privacy of the enclosed story. The book invited me in. Each word felt just for me, to me. In fact, I didn't feel the need or desire to talk about it. The book was a house; we lived in it together. Betty Smith was with me. We all knew how we felt. Maybe this is what made A Tree Grows in Brooklyn such an intimate, deepening experience.
Barbara Feinberg founded and now teaches at Story Shop, a creative writing afterschool program for children.
Reflections on the "Problem Novel"
Do These Calamity-Filled Books Serve Up Too Much, Too Often, Too Early?
By Barbara Feinberg
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: A Novel That Offers Pain, but Also Solace