Writing Through the Body: Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Joyce Zonana


 TreeGrowsInBrooklynIn her 1975 manifesto, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” French feminist Hélène Cixous urges women to write: “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. . . . Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes . . .”

“The Laugh of the Medusa” remains a thrilling essay, challenging and inspiring women to “return to the body” and to language.  “Woman must write woman,” Cixous insists, “for, with a few rare exceptions there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity.”

Although Cixous may not have been aware of it, Betty Smith’s beloved, perennially popular 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those “rare exceptions” that “inscribes femininity” in precisely the way she advocates. This autobiographical novel, so often dismissed as sentimental or as a children’s book, is actually written through the female body—which may explain its lasting popularity and power.

Like its author Elizabeth Wehner (Betty Smith), the novel’s heroine, Francie Nolan, is the child of poor immigrants, growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early years of the twentieth century. Chronically hungry and taught to be ashamed of her poverty, Francie early on finds solace in books—so much so that she longs to become a writer. But from a young age, she discovers that her writing and her hunger cannot be separated.

Chastised by a teacher for writing “sordid” stories that focus on the “poverty, starvation and drunkenness” of her own family, Francie tries to prove she has “imagination.” She invents a character named Sherry Nola, who lives in “sweltering luxury.” As Francie describes an elaborate dinner ordered by Sherry, a drop of water falls on the page. “No, the roof wasn’t leaking, it was merely her mouth watering.” Francie realizes that her topic is the same as it has always been—her own hunger—only now she’s “writing it in a twisted, round-about silly way.” She vows to tell the truth of her own body—as did, apparently, her creator, Betty Smith.

The opening pages of Tree are filled with devastating descriptions of the Nolan family’s efforts to feed itself. Because Francie’s charming but alcoholic father Johnny Nolan works only intermittently, Francie’s mother labors long hours on hands and knees as a janitress; still her two children are so hungry “they could have digested nails.” The family subsists on the six loaves Francie buys twice a week from a factory that sells stale bread at half price to the poor, which her mother combines with “condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip.”

Hunger drives ten-year-old Francie to tell her first “organized lie,” and to discover the possibility of “story-telling” as a mode of life. At a school Thanksgiving ceremony, her mouth watering, she claims she wants to take a small pumpkin pie to a poor family. When her teacher later asks her how the family liked the pie, Francie embroiders her story even further. The teacher sees through Francie’s tale, and kindly explains the difference between lying and story-telling, helping Francie to find “an outlet in writing.”

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Betty Smith shortly after the publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Another form of hunger runs through Tree like a thick rich current: “fierce love hunger”—raw, wild, and uncontained. The women and men in Tree all long for sex, and they feel its power for good and ill from an early age. At eleven, Francie watches the girls she sees from her window washing as they prepare to go out with their “fellers”; she notices the difference between a woman who is “starved” for men and another who is “healthily hungry.” Astonishingly, in this 1943 novel about a Catholic family, Francie’s mother responds with candor to her eighteen-year-old daughter’s question about whether she should have spent the night with a young soldier she had known for only two days: “I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing.”

The novel’s realism about sex extends to include sexual violence, both within and outside of marriage. Francie shudders as she overhears the nightly exchanges between a young woman and her “ape-like truck-driver husband.” Her grandmother Rommely suffers the “brutal love” of a husband whose cruelty extinguishes “all of her latent desires”; neighborhood women “rigidly” endure love-making, “praying all the while that another child would not result.” Early in the novel, we meet older men who prey upon young girls, including a murderous pedophile who prowls the streets the year Francie turns fourteen.

The most positive embodiment of sexuality in the novel is Francie’s Aunt Sissy, a woman who works in a condom factory and who enjoys a series of “husbands.” And it is from Sissy that Francie acquires her first books.

When she was born, her grandmother had told her mother she must read to her daughter each day from the Protestant Bible and from Shakespeare. Francie’s mother commissions Sissy to obtain the books. Sissy purchases a tattered Shakespeare for 25 cents from a librarian, and finds a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room she shares with a married man. The man tells her the Bible is there to be taken, in the hope that people will reform and repent. Sissy promises not to reform. As they prepare to leave in the morning, the man watches her “snap a red silk garter over the sheer lisle stocking she had pulled up over her shapely leg”:

 ‘Give us a kiss,’ he begged suddenly.

‘Have we time?’ she asked in a practical way.  But she pulled the stocking off again.

That’s how the library of Francie Nolan was started.

So, Francie’s hunger for reading and writing are linked with healthy female hunger for food and sex; Betty Smith’s writing is grounded in the female body; woman writes woman, and Helene Cixous–along with the rest of us–might well want to celebrate this surprisingly subversive, deeply satisfying novel.

 

Joyce Zonana, a Brooklyn writer, has been obsessed with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for several years. She is grateful to Carol P. Christ for encouraging her to write about the novel for FAR, and she is indebted to the scholarship of Carol Siri Johnson, whose online dissertation on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a wonderful resource, as well as to Valerie Yow’s comprehensive biography of Betty Smith.  Joyce’s translation from French to English of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix–another obsession–will be published soon by New York Review Books.

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Categories: Catholic Church, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Fiction, Food, Foremothers, Gender and Sexuality, General, Popular Culture, Poverty, Sexual Violence, Sexuality

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16 replies

  1. As you know Joyce, my grandfather was born a year earlier and a few blocks away from where Elizabeth Wehner was born. It is sad she was not able to write about a German-speaking family as hers was because of anti-German sentiments in the US and therefore had to make her story about an Irish family. I am sure she is telling my German Williamsburg family’s story as well.

    I love the way you have shaped this essay. It is so true that she is writing a woman’s story from the perspective of a woman’s body. Let’s hope your future work will lead to Betty Smith becoming recognized as a major author and not just a sentimental local color storyteller!!!

    Blessed be!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this interesting essay. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was one of the three books my family possessed in the small Texas town where I spent some of my childhood (the other two being “Anna and the King of Siam” and “Gone with the Wind”), so I read it again and again. Although we were never hungry, I was a lonely little girl like Francie and I also found refuge in reading.

    The book does strike a universal chord; that’s why it has become a classic. However, when I reread it a few years ago for the “Books That Changed My Life” forum, I was amazed to find out how much of the book had imprinted itself on my mind. Phrases, sentences, characters echo still in my thoughts, sixty years later. It was only on rereading the book that I realized the extent to which this is true.

    On that later reading, I also realized how “Tree” is practically a manifesto in how NOT to live. Such incidents as Francie’s having to turn over her rag money to Neeley, her brother–“Neeley was a year younger than Francie, but he was the boy: he handled the money”–infuriated me. All through the book Neeley, who was not nearly as well read or as intellectually curious as Francie, was given opportunities she was not, simply because he was male and because his mother liked him better than she did his elder sister. Finally, after an incident in which the women of the neighborhood turn on a young, unmarried mother and her baby, Francie writes in her diary that as long as she lives she will never have a woman as a friend. In fact at one point she and her mother both tell each other that they hate women.

    I find this appalling, as I am the complete opposite. Although heterosexual, I love women and prefer my own gender as friends. The men I know–my husband, my sons, my nephews–as nice as they are, are so blinded by male privilege that they have no conception of what we women go through every day of our lives. From the bullying we endure as children to the catcalls we live through as we come of age, to the invisibility we endure in old age, we are scarred by patriarchy. I do not trust men to have women’s best interests at heart. For proof, I point to male legislators. Even the male legislators supposedly on our side are willing to trade women’s rights away in the hope of attracting the votes of white, working-class men.

    I’m glad to live now, in a time when women can be friends, love and marry each other, and speak out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful, detailed comment. Yes, this is an indelible novel. And you are absolutely right to note the way Francie is thwarted simply because she is female–and how the patriarchal system turns women against each other. But don’t you think that Smith is pointing this out and lamenting it? Feminists have been reluctant to claim Smith as a “sister” or foremother and I feel this is a mistake. We’re indeed lucky to live in a different time, and it is thanks to works like this that we do!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I reread the book a few months ago. I didn’t feel Smith approved of Neeley getting preference just because he was a boy. Nor did I feel that Smith approved of the way the other women treated the young unmarried mother. And Francie and her mother surely loved each other. I think the book is a very close observation of the difficulties of women in a society dominated by men. And don’t forget that sisterhood b/w Francie’s mother and her aunt is a theme in the book, even though one of them is not a “good” woman–this is a breakthrough. So what women do Francie and her mother hate? Maybe it is women who hate other women???

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I do agree that Betty Smith didn’t necessarily approve of the way things were. I read that she came in for considerable criticism from the Roman Catholic church with respect to another of her novels, “Maggie-Now.” The line from that book now indelibly engraved on my mind was: “In accordance with the religion, they saved the baby and let the mother die.”

        Simply by writing about such practices, Smith offers subtle criticism. I understand that. What blows my mind is how I never questioned any of this at age 11, when I first read the book, and how outraged I felt on rereading it.

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  3. This has always been one of my favorite films. Your essay prompted me to put it on my queue at Netflix, and to send a link to my writer-film critic daughter, who lives in Brooklyn.

    All three of us on my “little” family read extensively, but before your essay, but I didn’t know it was a book. Now, it’s on my reading list.

    Thank you!

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  4. Yes, Carol, I do think the women Francie hated were the neighborhood women who stoned the young woman and her baby. There may have been some love between Francie and Katie, but not much. At one point Smith states that Francie knew of Katie’s pronounced preference for Neeley, and “grew an answering hardness against her mother. And this, paradoxically, brought them closer together because it made them more alike.”

    Being a writer myself, I know better than to attribute the attitudes of characters to the writer who is describing them. My point is that when I reread the book I thought it was a lesson in how not to live: 1. Don’t prefer your son to your daughter. 2. Don’t short-change your daughter simply because you love your son more. 3. Don’t teach her that other women are people to be despised. Of course, there was love between Aunt Sissy and Francie, and Grandmother Mary Rommely and Francie, but I didn’t discern a great deal of love for Francie from Katie. I think as Francie attained economic power and status through her job, Katie came to respect her. They were two very strong personalities, and the day came when Francie was able to stand up for herself.

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    • I think you are absolutely right about the “life lessons” from the book . . . and it’s fascinating that your younger self didn’t get outraged, though perhaps, after all, she did, since you grew up to be the woman you are now . . . . I also find it interesting that you had ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM in your small home library. Two years ago I saw a revival of THE KING AND I and realized that the play (and the movie) had in fact nurtured my own early feminism . . . Anna is certainly a woman who felt her connection with other women, quite strongly. (I also recently read Anna Leonowens’s THE ROMANCE OF THE HAREM, upon which ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM. It’s another amazing book, well-worth reading.)

      When Carol and I were in Williamsburg a few months ago, we chanced into a little cafe/restaurant called “Brooklyn Tree,” just down the street from the church Francie went to. The owner was a young Dominican man who had grown up on that street. His mother, who stopped by while we were there, talked with us about how A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN had influenced her . . . she said she raised her children the way Katie raised hers! Perhaps not with the sexism, but with the commitment to education, saving, and integrity. It was quite a fascinating encounter, and another example of the power of this book!

      Like

  5. I plan to read the book now. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this Shelley! Now I’ll be reading all your work!

    Like

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  1. Have you read this? Joyce Zonana’s Brilliant analysis of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Shelley Marie Motz

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