Monday, December 15, 2014

Happy Birthday Betty Smith

I admit I saw the movie long before I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn before I'd read the book. While I considered myself a bookish girl, and read pretty much whatever I could get my hands on (although even then I refused to finish books that didn't hold my interest), I don't believe that I'd ever heard of it until seeing the film on the cable classic movie station when I was a teen.

I watched it all the way through, mesmerized. And then waited for it to appear again, watching it whenever it was on. Eventually, I found a copy of the book and read it over the course of a weekend.

I recognized myself in Francie.

When I was 12, my family moved from a small town in Northeastern Texas, where everyone I knew shopped at Kmart, to an affluent suburb on Detroit. The selection of where to move was made based on test scores and my parents struggled to make the rent on a small apartment on the edge of the school district. I may not come from an immigrant family per se, but we certainly were emigres into an entirely new culture.

Teased at school for my cheap clothes and southern drawl, I worked hard to assimilate, while also finding comfort in my books and old movies. I was sick a lot -- actually sick as well as "sick of school" sick. So finding Francie on my television one snowy sick-day afternoon was a blessing.

Here was someone like me.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Since I'm older, I sometimes wonder how Francie's life turned out. It's commonly assumed that Francie was also a kind of outlet for her author, Betty Smith. Like Francie, her parents were immigrants, and she grew up poor in Brooklyn. If that's the case, perhaps her life followed a similar trajectory.

Like Francie, her family was quite poor, and Betty dropped out of school early to work and help support them. Betty was fortunate enough to attend Girl's High School at one point, working a night to be able to attend classes during the day. She did not finish high school though. Instead she married a fellow Brooklyn resident, and moved with him to Ann Arbor to raise their daughter while he pursued a degree from the University of Michigan. When we leave Francie at the end of the book she herself is preparing to attend classes at the University of Michigan. Betty had to wait until her daughters were in school before she could take classes, eventually enrolling in classes in journalism, literature, drama, and writing, and winning a prestigious Avery Hopwood Award.

I don't know much more about her, but found this site dedicated to her life and writings: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I will be reading this over the next week or so and sharing any juicy tidbits I come across.


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