“The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church.”
Some books etch themselves on your soul. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Perhaps eleven? (Francie’s age when the book begins.) How many times did I read it after that? Ten? Twenty? Enough so that every scene, every character indelibly marked me.
I never visited a church or synagogue while growing up in Brooklyn, but like Francie Nolan, I worshipped at the altar of the library. From Francie, the protagonist in coming-of-age novel, I learned that I wasn’t the only frightened, confused, and unhappy little girl in the world.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith was the only bible I ever owned, my personal talisman of hopefulness—perhaps because similar to bookish Francie (though in different times; published in 1943, the story opens in 1912.) I grew up confused by my always-working mother and missing my father. He, like Francie’s, ran from life by what we now call self-medicating (and what Francie’s mother and mine, called nothing, because who talked about it in Brooklyn?) And then he, like Francie’s escaped forever by dying as a young man.
Like Francie, I’d experienced the horror of old men preying on young girls, the joy of having an aunt I’d worshipped, and suffered in a school I hated. Each time I read Francie’s story I was struck anew by how the author knew so much and dared to write it.
That’s the beauty of books. They don’t just transport, they heal, teach, and soothe. On the loneliest of days, they ask no more than being opened. They promise you’re not alone and provide you with the hope of a way out. The best ones don’t guarantee the happiest ending in the world (for who has that?) but show that you have the possibility of enduring (and maybe even thriving) and becoming strong at the broken places.
Perhaps all insatiable readers become imprinted by a one special book at a vulnerable age, providing that reader with characters who forever become family of the heart. Because of brave Francie Nolan, I believed I could and would survive. She gave me faith in the future. Bless you, Betty Smith. You are forever my favorite author.