Arguably the best piece of literature ever written about North Brooklyn, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s classic tale of a girl coming of age in early 20th century Williamsburg, will be celebrated on Wednesday, Nov. 14, from 5:30 to 7:30 P.M. at the Leonard Street Library (81 Devoe Street). The book’s 75th anniversary of publication celebration will include live music, a panel of New York authors and Greenpoint’s own Amy Marino, the talented artist whom publisher Harper Collins chose to design the book cover.
Smith’s daughter, who is in her nineties will attend the event, which will feature an unveiling of a literary landmark plaque dedicated to the book. As a young woman, Smith lived around the corner from the branch, often visiting it, and Francie, the novel’s protagonist, actually visits the branch in the novel. A few years ago, the library planted an ailanthus tree outside the branch to honor Smith and her work.
The book, which was first published in 1943, became a wartime best seller, massively popular with homesick local boys fighting in the Pacific and Europe. Two years later, the book was made into a Hollywood film directed by Elia Kazan. Peggy Ann Garner, who won a Special Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress of 1945 and James Dunn also won another Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Many novels even younger than Smith’s work, fade into obscurity, but “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” has stood the test of time. Recently named to the list of the hundred greatest American novels by PBS, the classic novel continues to attract readers from around the world.
What is the secret of the work’s enduring popularity? Part of its appeal lies in the authenticity of the narrator’s voice. Even in really adverse circumstances, Francie’s voice is hopeful and optimistic, celebrating the smallest things in life just like the ailanthus tree, which struggled to grow outside her window. Marino, a mother of three, believes that every middle school or high school girl should read Smith’s novel and kids still identify with the coming of age tale. Marino also noted that despite the fact that much of the action took place a century ago, many of the buildings and the streets described in the book still exist and many of Marino’s own paintings brilliantly depict Francie Nolan’s still extant Williamsburg.
There are a number of Greenpoint connections to the book. Smith went to P.S 23 in Greenpoint and School Settlement (120 Jackson St.) and her family actually resided locally for a time. One of the stores she describes in the book is Cheap Charlies (712 Manhattan Ave.), which until recently was a Manhattan Avenue retailer whose name came from Smith’s book. The work perfectly captures the struggle for existence that defined the lives of many working-class Brooklynites a century ago.
Marino also noted that there is a strong feminism that pervades the book. The men, especially Francie’s father Johnny Nolan, are weak and overcome by their struggle to survive, while the female characters persevere and prove to be stronger than their male counterparts, explaining in part its continued appeal to women readers.
Smith achieved fame and financial success through the book, but Smith could never write anything else that matched “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Smith died in 1972, but 75 years after its publication, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is still being celebrated.