As the school year approaches again, I am turning my summer energy away from writing and personal projects to the summer reading I assigned my students. It’s been a year since I visited these books, and I need to re-read.
In some ways, re-reading for work like this can be maddening when I see the list of books I want to read for the first time. Life is short and the list is long. But every time I dive back into a book I’ve read once (or six times) I find that I can see so much more. I feel like Neo seeing The Matrix–I can see word choice and sentence structure. I can see interesting plot choices. I can see what the author is doing with the narrator or the voice. What I’ve come to learn is that re-reading is a treasure trove for the writer. Freed from trying to hold on to characters and plot, I can turn my attention to craft and think on a higher level about the writing and the themes.
I started with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the first of two books I assigned to my honors 10th grade students. I’d been looking for a way to teach this book since I was in grad school. This year will be my third year teaching the honors 10th grade English curriculum that I designed, and it’s also the third iteration of summer reading for that class. The first year I was too controversial and caused a stir. The second year I went safer but the students didn’t feel the love. Then, in the middle of last year, two of my students told me they were working their way through a list of classic novels and had just read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They gushed. They adored it.
Lightning struck me! I’d been thinking about that book for a decade, and also I’d been trying to find a way to use Jean Kwok’s lovely 2010 novel Girl in Translation. Hadn’t Girl in Translation been compared to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Wouldn’t that be an amazing pairing? 100 years apart, one girl Chinese, one girl Austrian-Irish, and yet so much in common in their stories.
And so, onto the summer reading assignment they went. I remembered back to all the amazing classes I took at NYU in the English Education department where I designed book pairings and projects that would ask students to draw a thread of connection between an old novel and a new. This is why I love my school: I can bring to life the passionate imaginings of the NYU grad student I once was. I’m glad to see her light wasn’t ground out along the way.
So I spent last week curled up with the bittersweet prose of Ms. Betty Smith. (I feel she must always be addressed with that formality. She’s like an old Hollywood movie star to me.)
As I started the book again, I was reminded of how different it is than the modern novel that drops you in the soup of disaster on page one. In the introduction by Anna Quindlen, she calls it a novel in which nothing happens. Which is true, but also it isn’t. Life happens. True, there is no central conflict, no overarching character objective, except maybe survival and a moment’s pleasure. But that comes to be an all-consuming goal to the reader, and you can’t stop reading lest Francie languish in heartache or hunger too long.
Ms. Smith is a master of character development. There are a lot of characters flitting in and out of the tenement neighborhood and beyond, and they all start to feel like your own wacky relatives. No one is totally perfect or good, but no one is completely wicked and you realize so much truth about humanity as you read. You condemn and forgive on the same page.
I was surprised to see the book is narrated in third person. You spend so much time inside Francie’s head, that you forget that it isn’t first person. We take occasional dips into a few other characters’ minds, but mostly, we’re with Francie. And it’s a lovely place to be. Her innocence, her toughness, all of her is so endearing. You see what she fails to see, and you watch her realize things she as matures.
This book is the quintessential bildungsroman (thanks Word of the Day for this one, but don’t ask me to say it out loud, I have to repeat it over an over and it never quite feels at home in my mouth). Francie starts the book at 11, then we flash back to her parents’ childhoods and move all the way back to Francie at 11 and finish the book when she is 16 or 17 and headed off to college. My whole life is a bildungsroman–I teach 14-16 year-olds 10 months of the year–but I still like reading them. They don’t lose their charm for me.
Perhaps all coming-of-age stories are a series of lucky near-misses and blood-sweat-and-tears survival, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels especially so. I find myself with my heart in my throat as I read. I just want to leap into the book and yell at the adults and give her something to eat. But then I forgive those adults (except maybe Johnny) and I just want to throw a coat on Francie’s shoulders. Except her spirit and gumption kick in and I’m so proud of her when I realize she doesn’t need saving. She’s doing it herself.
This book also makes me realize the importance of ignorance in childhood. It’s a great insulator. Francie’s lack of awareness keeps her from despair. And when awareness blooms, and despair threatens her, she fights back.
And this book is so much about women. From illiterate Mary Rommelly and her abusive husband to Katie and her drunk (but loving) husband, to Francie. What an important story of the generations upon generations of women who have not earned spots in our history books, but who nonetheless have kept our species alive. I know we like to talk about the Joan of Arcs and the Marie Curies, who are undoubtedly important, but the women who endured hunger, poverty, abuse, violence and yet somehow kept themselves and their children alive are the true heroes. They didn’t quit and they didn’t give up. They accepted the hand that life had dealt them and eked out an existence. When I look at Katie Nolan’s survival and achievements, they match those of the great women who have earned posters and glossy textbook pages.
And now, I have to steel my heart and hope that the 30 or so student who read it for my class liked it. You don’t know the pain in a teacher’s heart when a student, a stranger still, breezes in on day 1 and casually torpedoes me with, “Ugh, that book? So boring. I could barely finish it. I mean, what’s even the point?” It takes all my inner Katie Nolan not lose my cool. Plug your ears in the grave, Ms. Smith. Forgive their youth, and let me see if I can work my magic.
Summer reading is always an autopsy, as my colleague says. We didn’t read it together, bit by bit, with discussions and collaboration along the way. Their opinions were formed in a vacuum and their opinions get set in concrete before they walk in the room. If a book confuses them, they come to hate it for making them feel stupid. And since they didn’t get to meet up with their peers and me around the Harkness table to ask their questions and shine a new light on the text, the negative opinion sticks. I like to fantasize about them going to college some day, and there’s a fellow student clutching the book to their chest, delivering an impassioned monologue on its value and beauty. My former student bites her tongue and wonders, Maybe Ms. Griswold was on to something. Let me give it another look.
Inevitably, someone won’t like the book. That’s how books are. And probably, given the high energy and quick plotting of contemporary novels, this book feels plodding and atmospheric by comparison. Perhaps Girl in Translation will illuminate A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for them. Perhaps a fear of disappointing me will make them soften their negative opinions, if they have them. Perhaps by requiring them to read it, I’ve already robbed them of the joy of reading it through their own discovery. The most I can hope for is that our discussions and our research into poverty, current immigration and immigrant rights, will light a little flame in them. And, at the end of the day, it’s never a bad thing to spend some hours with Ms. Betty Smith.