Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book 22: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

"The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day."

Dates read: February 19-22, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Lists/Awards: NY Times Bestseller

Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In today's world, it's ground zero of the hipster renaissance. It's more expensive to live in Brooklyn lately than it is to live in Manhattan. But it wasn't always that way. A century ago, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place, Williamsburg was where the immigrants and/or poor people lived. People like Francie Nolan and her family.

If you're a fan of plot-driven novels, this probably isn't going to be the book for you. Nothing much really happens...two young people, the children of Irish and German immigrants, meet, fall in love, and marry. They have two children, a girl and a boy. The father, Johnny Nolan, is charming and sweet-natured but fundamentally weak, incapable of holding down a steady job because of his alcoholism. The mother, Katie Nolan, is strong-willed, hard-working and tries but fails to hide her preference for her son over her daughter. The family lives in poverty, barely scraping by, as the children grow up. Francie, the daughter, is the center of the story, and the plot is largely about her poor but otherwise mostly unremarkable childhood.

But for me personally, I didn't even really notice that there was less in the way of plot, because the characterization and quality of writing were so strong. The shy and bookish yet resilient Francie and her world were apparently an only thinly veiled version of author Betty Smith's own childhood experiences, and a feeling of lived emotional truth resonates throughout the novel. Smith's prose isn't showily beautiful like Vladimir Nabakov's, but she strikes home keen insights about childhood and growing up with elegance and sensitivity. The characters are all people that exist in the real world: the good-natured and lovable but ultimately feckless overgrown child, the harried parent who has to stay strong enough to keep it all together at the expense of their own emotional wants and needs, the standoffish person who holds themself apart and pre-rejects everyone else before they can be rejected, the younger sibling who manages to get away with more than the older sibling would have ever thought to try. It may be set 100 years ago, but the story it tells is still meaningful today.

It was pure coincidence that I read this book right after The Namesake, and a minor plot point got me thinking about immigration, second languages, and class. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, both Katie and Johnny, despite being the children of immigrants, speak only English. Their parents are determined that their children will be American, and to be American is to speak English. It actually reminds me of a story my dad has told me about my grandfather, who is 100% pure Polish but speaks not a lick of the language. When my dad asked his grandpa about it, he said something similar: we're Americans now. We speak English. The Gangulis and their friends in The Namesake, on the other hand, make an effort to preserve their Bengali language and culture with their children. Their offspring hold oral fluency, at least, in their parents' native tongue along with their spoken and written English. When I was at the University of Michigan, I had friends whose parents were immigrants from the Middle East or Asia, and it wasn't uncommon to hear them answer calls from their parents in Mandarin, Hindi, or Farsi. There was never a sense of judgment attached to it. But there's a real hostility to Latino immigrants and their children speaking Spanish with each other, although their children brought up in America speak English just as well as anyone else. The perception of immigrants and their children who speak a second language seems to be tied more strongly to the social class of the speaker than any value judgment about having a non-English home language.

Tell me, blog you or anyone you know have immigrant parents? Did they speak a second language at home?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

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