[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to a special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]
On historical, cultural, and literary contexts for a beloved novel’s central symbol.
One of my favorite things about this blog is how much I learn from researching just about every post, and especially those where I start with a basic topic—“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn makes sense for a series on tree stories”—and not much more. In this case, I learned (first from the book’s Wikipedia page, natch; but verified with another source to which I’ll link, also natch) a really striking historical context for Betty Smith’s 1943 novel: that it was one of the books distributed to WWII soldiers in pocket-sided Armed Services Editions (ASE); that it was popular enough to be one of the select few ASEs chosen for a second printing; and that Smith received countless fan letters from grateful GIs. Of the letters I’ve seen quoted, the most striking such response seems to me to closely parallel the book’s titular symbolic story, the image of the resilient “Tree of Heaven” outside protagonist Francie Nolan’s childhood window: that Marine wrote to Smith, “I can't explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine...A surge of confidence has swept through me, and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.”
I can’t imagine a more moving response to, or context for, Smith’s titular image nor her book as a whole. But there are always multiple meaningful contexts for any work, and I would add a couple more layers to the conversation as well. On a cultural level, Smith’s Tree offers a unique but tellingly representative symbol of the multi-generational immigration experience in America: Francie’s father Johnny Nolan is an Irish immigrant and her mother Katie Rommely Nolan an Austrian one, and Francie both witnesses their struggles with early 20th century urban poverty and American society and experiences her own 2nd-generation challenges. Yet she not only perseveres but by the novel’s end is (at the age of 17) as mature and thriving as the Tree, which thus becomes as moving a symbol of these multi-generational immigrant American sagas as Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, or Lahiri’s Namesake. Smith’s novel would pair with any and all of those books in an Ethnic American Lit course.
That’s of course already a literary as well as a cultural context for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I would add one other literary context into the mix as well. I’ve written and talked a good bit in the last year and a bit about why and how we might replace To Kill a Mockingbird in our classrooms and curricula, including with the book (and film adaptation) to which I’ll turn in tomorrow’s post. But at the very least, if we’re going to keep Mockingbird I think we should find ways to reframe it, to push past the (to my mind) largely inaccurate sense of it as a novel about racism and justice and to read it for the complicated coming-of-age story it truly is. One way to do so would be to pair it with another such coming-of-age novel like Smith’s, and for example to think about how Smith’s titular Tree might be compared and contrasted with the neighborhood tree that becomes such a pivotal part of the setting and the story of Scout Finch in Lee’s book. One more way and reason to read, teach, and share Smith’s novel and its Tree.
Next tree tale tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other tree texts you’d throw in?