Shortly after my family began self-quarantining in the middle of March, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time, flipping pages on my iPad while sprawled out on the living room floor. I’d driven home from college over spring break and was confronting the fact that quarantine had shrunk my world to the size it was when I was in middle school. With the increased sense of enclosure came a desire for comfort: I wanted to read something warm and timeless, something that a younger me would’ve enjoyed.
Written by Betty Smith and originally published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn initially drew me in because it seemed to deliver on what I wanted. A coming-of-age novel set in the early 1900s, the story follows a young girl named Francie Nolan from ages eleven to sixteen as she grows up in Brooklyn, New York. Francie demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the world and an incessant need to make sense of it, characteristics that would have appealed to my twelve-year-old self.
But even as I expected the story to let me lose myself in a different time period, the book instead reminded me, gently, of my present circumstances. Parsing through the chaos of the pandemic is difficult, and at a time when many people feel uprooted and rudderless, trying to communicate hope often feels awkward and unwieldy. Though it takes place in a drastically different setting, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels timely, not only for its portrayal of hardship and loss, but also because it teaches readers how to argue for hope’s existence thoughtfully and clearly. More than that, the symbolism it threads throughout its narrative shows how hope conveys truth by breaking through the fallenness of the world and revealing the beauty that emerges from brokenness.
But hope was never meant for the good days; it was meant for times like these, when words fall short and ring hollow.Perhaps the most predominant symbol of hope in the book is Francie’s tree, which grows in her front yard and pushes against the citified concrete that threatens to box it in, “struggl[ing] to reach the sky.” The tree curls around Francie’s family’s third-story fire escape; in the book’s opening scene, she sits on her cramped balcony and, surrounded by leaves and branches, pretends that she’s sitting in the tree itself. It’s one of the more serene moments in her young life.
The Brooklyn neighborhood she grows up in forces its occupants to be thrifty and keenly pragmatic, their hardscrabble lives perpetually hovering around the poverty line. Francie’s father, Johnny, can’t hold down a steady job; her mother, Katie, cleans buildings to put food on the table. The family bounces from apartment to apartment, continually hampered by their finances. In the midst of their hardship, though, the author uses the tree as a motif that parallels Francie’s experiences, reminding readers of the persistence and resilience it takes to survive. The final few lines of the novel brings the symbolism of the tree to completion:
But the tree hadn’t died. . . . it hadn’t died. A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again. . . . It lived! And nothing could destroy it.
Francie’s tree represents, most overtly, the hope for future growth, the ability to climb higher and see beyond the world into which she was born. This ties into another symbol that runs throughout the novel. Francie’s mother, keenly aware of the need to teach her children how to see beyond their immediate surroundings, decides that books will help provide that perspective. Every night, she reads one page from the Bible and one page from Shakespeare to Francie and her younger brother Neeley, that they might understand something of the world beyond New York. This practice instills in Francie a love of literature and, more than that, a desire to explore the world outside of Brooklyn. In this way, literature, too, represents a symbol of hope, one that continually reminds Francie to dream outside of her own existence.
Literature functions as escape, not simply as a way to deny ourselves the reality of our lives, but also as a means by which we can understand and imagine what it’s like to live in the lives of others. Furthermore, by reading other people’s stories and observing the way that they write theirs, books teach us how to critique and observe our own narratives–and, eventually, how to write them truthfully.
This theme emerges most in what is now considered one of the focal points of the book’s trajectory, a scene between Francie and her teacher, Miss Garnder. Francie’s love of literature has turned her into an aspiring writer, and, excited by the prospect of someone reading her work, shows some of her stories to her teacher who calls them “sordid” for their descriptions of poverty and drunkenness. Instead, she urges Francie to write about “beauty.” When Francie asks what “beauty” is, Miss Garnder quotes John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
Smith writes, “Francie took her courage into her own two hands and said, ‘These stories are the truth.'”
Francie’s act of courage acts as a pivotal point in the narrative. It’s not only a moment that defines her as a character and informs what kind of person she will be as she grows up, but it also makes a landmark statement for the reader. In this moment, we see that to write the truth with hope is to wrestle with it–to try to conceive of its wholeness and to try to convey that wholeness in a way that’s not pandering or syrupy, glossed over or hopelessly cynical. It’s admitting that the coexistence of bleakness and hope isn’t paradoxical, and, in fact, that admitting the simultaneous presence of both is infinitely more truthful than rejecting one in favor of the other. To write the truth is to write with hope in a similar way to how midafternoon light shines into a bedroom–not overly bright or harshly direct, but suffused throughout, offsetting dark corners and shadows without eradicating them completely.
Reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made me think about the moment we’re all living in now, how the idea of hope probably feels murky to many. But hope was never meant for the good days; it was meant for times like these, when words fall short and ring hollow. Every time I try to encourage someone I run up against the limitations of language, constantly questioning whether what I say can actually help heal, or whether I’m just adding to the noise. All I can offer on my own is my shared experience–which, though it can provide some semblance of solidarity, still lacks much.
Because of this, I often return to a passage in Romans 5:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
I’m comforted immensely by the fact that the message of the Gospel isn’t restrained to the words with which they’re written, and that to hope as a believer is to hope in Christ. After all, we’re not at the end yet; we’re still riding the redemptive arc.
This, perhaps, is the most hopeful thing: knowing that the story of this world, the one that God has orchestrated since the beginning of time, is not yet complete–and that the ending will be more brilliant and beautiful than any denouement we could write for ourselves.