For our final YA book club, Nona Willis Aronowitz asks Erin Blakemore and Jennie Law what they thought about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Add your own answers to Nona’s questions (or come up with your own discussion points) in the comments section.
Nona: There’s a traditional set-up of “Daddy’s little girl” (Francie/Johnny) and “Mama’s boy” (Katie/Neeley) in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. How much of this do you think was personality-based, and how much is cultural/social?
Erin: I think the dichotomy is definitely personality-based in that Johnny loves the steeliness and secret softness in Francie and Katie sees the man she fell in love with in Neely. I wonder if it also isn’t related to Neely’s being able to attain a sort of social status that Francie can never aspire to? Not sure. I will add that in my research on Betty Smith, I learned that she had real issues with her own mother, so she could very well be reflecting those questions in her own work.
Nona: In the book, men and women (particular Katie and Johnny) are portrayed as dealing with poverty very differently—one buckles down and leans on her pride, one escapes it all by revelry and music. Do you think this is/was an unfair stereotype? Does our culture still set up these gendered expectations about money and class?
Erin: You’re right on about women bearing the brunt of poverty in this book…I mean, look at Uncle Willy! I wonder, though, if Betty Smith didn’t mean to uplift women in that portrayal…to show women as capable of flexibility and survival even when they’re not helped by their men.
Nona: What do you make of Katie and Francie’s complex relationship? Do you think she truly loves her less? What about Francie’s attitude toward her mother—do you think it has to do with her pessimistic attitude toward women in general?
Erin: The intense relationship between Katie and Francie is one of my favorites in literature. I don’t think Katie actually loves her daughter less, but she likes her less, if that makes sense, because she’s so similar and reminds her of the hardships she faced in life. Neely seems to be a container for the fantasies that Katie doesn’t feel she can indulge elsewhere, which is really detrimental and hurtful to her daughter. As for Francie, I think she’s marvelously compassionate toward her mother given Katie’s external harshness and hurt.
Nona: Francie endures two instances of sexual assault, one (on the subway) that’s laughed off by her female relatives and one (in the stairway) that ends with the guy shot dead. What do you think of how each were handled?
Jennie: I think that Smith writes both of these scenes with the necessary complicated compassion. She definitely uses each of these assault scenes to mark and comment on social mores of the time. From my point of view, Smith pits the two parts of the book against each other to show how the passage of time has made violence towards women less acceptable and more reprehensible. The earlier levity of Rommely women’s reactions rightfully appalls us as modern readers. Just as Katie’s shooting the murder rapist in the gut makes us cheer. When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published, I venture that those reactions were probably closer to being experienced in reverse. We’ve come a long way.
Erin: I think this shows the gray area of sexual assault in a society where it was literally expected that women would be judged on their bodies and viewed as sexual objects. In some instances, women can wish it away/laugh it off….in others, they are driven to protect their own in a very violent way. The assault in the hallway was so creepy and terrible, not least because of everyone else’s reaction to it. But I think it’s important that Smith at least shone some light on the reality of sexual violence in that world.
Nona: The scene where Johnny gets drunk and Sissy comforts him is very sexually charged. What significance do you think it had in terms of Katie and Sissy’s relationship? In terms of Katie and Johnny’s relationship?
Erin: I guess you could argue that everything Sissy does is sexually charged! I think this illustrates the “softness” of Sissy versus Katie’s shell of hardness. Sissy can appeal to Johnny’s imagination and ego whereas Katie is all brass tacks. I would note that Johnny doesn’t really benefit from that interaction with Sissy in the long run…it’s just palliative which kind of justifies Katie’s view of the matter.
Nona: Sissy is the most overtly feminine of all the characters, yet has terrible luck with both men and childbirth. Did you see her as a tragic character? Did you like her, did you see her as a stereotype?
Erin: Since Sissy ends up happy and fulfilled, I would say she’s not tragic per se. I like that her sexuality is seen as glamorous and subversive by Francie instead of bad and evil. Like so many things Smith presents in this book, there’s lots of gray area. And Smith really points out that Sissy’s lack of education hinders her life in this area.
Jennie: I repeatedly had to remind myself that Sissy was not Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Sissy would have fit right into the sultry streetcar lined nightmare of Williams’ New Orleans. Yes, I find her tragic. Yes, I liked her. And, yes, I saw her as a stereotype. I probably have too much empathy for characters who do not like themselves. Sissy is filled with self loathing and consumed with attempting to masquerade it as savy confidence that eventually winnows her down to a shadow of her younger self. I found this fascinating. In fact, I would say that I liked her parts of the book the most.
Nona: Describe your reaction to Katie’s marriage to McShane at the end. Do you think it was purely financial, an antidote to Johnny, both? Would you have done the same thing to get out of poverty and be “taken care of”?
Erin: I think it was in part a recognition of realities, but in part an acknowledgment of a man who made Katie feel like a loved, valid woman again. In a society where Katie herself has access to only the most menial of jobs, it certainly is a convenient out, but I like that she chooses someone who really values her dignity in the process.
Jennie: I was not surprised by Katie’s marriage to McShane in the end. Katie, throughout the story, proved that she would do anything virtuous within her power to keep her family afloat. It made perfect sense to me that Katie would marry a decent man in the end to buoy her family. As much as I would like to think that I would not marry a man just to be taken care of, I’m really not sure what I would do faced with poverty during that time in that place. I think Katie might have made the only decision she could have with what little resources she had. I’m just grateful to not have to actually make that decision in my own life.
Nona: I couldn’t help but think that Sissy was a pre-Joan from Mad Men and Francie was a kind of pre-Peggy—two very different women who weren’t living in the right era yet but knew they were too intelligent to choose a wholly traditional trajectory. ATGIB was very influential for its time—do you think it inspired later pop culture characters?
Erin: Honestly, I still think ATGIB sets the bar in terms of fraught female relationships, especially, but I don’t see a lot of direct parallels. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it’s a meandering, relatively un-plotty story. I will also say that even though ATGIB was very influential in its time, I think it’s far too forgotten these days. When I was researching my Tree chapter for The Heroine’s Bookshelf, it was hard to come by reliable information about Betty Smith even though she was an extremely prolific writer and a complicated, tricky and entirely fascinating woman. Needless to say, I’m so glad other people are discovering Betty and the book!
Jennie: Without a doubt, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has inspired generations of popular characters. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for such a
feat. Of course A Tree is considered a classic but I don’t think enough people generally think of it as a huge cultural touchstone.
Meet today’s panel:
Erin Blakemore learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby, running her own business, and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Erin’s debut book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf, was published by HarperCollins in October.
Jennie Law is a feminist children’s librarian in Decatur, GA. She’s also a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project (Feminist Books for Young Readers) under the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She spends her free time challenging the patriarchy, hanging out with Butler (her Russian Tortoise), reading, tap dancing, and writing in rhyme.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a 26-year-old multimedia journalist and cultural critic. She has written about women, sex, politics, music, and youth culture for numerous publications including The Nation, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, and BUST. She is the author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Nona is currently a contributing producer at public radio’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition in New York City, and feminist-blogs in her free time.
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