In 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.”
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.