Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


"Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912...Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in late summer."

These opening lines of Betty Smith's classic "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" immersed me from the start. Francie Nolan and I would be forever friends, souls linked by the nostalgia of our past and the steadfast determination to experience the world. So what if Francie is fictional. Or born in 1900. Or Irish-Catholic. Or a Brooklyn girl. I could've written a similar paragraph something like this:

"Serene was a word you could put to Kirkman, Iowa. Especially in the summer of 1981. The countrysides were beautiful and a horse whinny was a beautiful sound, but that wasn't quite Kirkman. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in late summer."

The first time I read this book, I remember classifying it as a favorite. So when it came up for our lunch and library pick, I wondered if I'd feel the same way. I can staunchly proclaim, it remains a favorite. Maybe even the favorite.

There is so much I love about this coming-of-age story. Relatable symbolism. Strong female characters. (Betty Smith was a solid feminist!) Punchy dialogue that somehow transcends the period of the novel. As I read this early 20th century piece, I realized how the challenge of growing up is a universal and timeless theme–whether you're growing in Brooklyn or Kirkman.

The story of Francie Nolan as a child in Williamsburg, Brooklyn offers a collection of stories featuring her dependable mother ("Mother never fumbles"), her lovable but alcoholic father, and her younger brother who seems to be Francie's only real friend. Francie is clever and as we watch her grow up, we witness her cleverness transform to wisdom. She is acutely aware of her dire circumstances, yet she lives with resolve.

I underlined almost a million passages.

On imagery and symbolism:

"No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district."

A tree that grows out of cement. Haven't we all seen something like that, but not been particularly astonished by it? This is how a great writer transforms the power of observation.

On writing:

As Francie discovered her knack for embellishing a story, an English teacher provides the following lesson:

"Tell the truth and write the story."

This is my new personal mantra.

On growing up:

"It is a good thing to learn the truth one's self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch." 

Betty Smith manages to integrate lessons on life through the dialogue of interesting characters (like Grandma Rommely and Francie's colorful aunts). Smith is also crafty with bits of exposition:

"Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference. Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt."

At one point of the book, after tragedy and heartbreak have befallen Francie, she prays, "Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat...Only let me be something every blessed minute..."

This passage is written just before we learn that war is declared.This book is more than a coming of age narrative, it's a story about experiencing every moment of your life no matter what your circumstances or what happens around you. It's not a book about survival, it's a book of celebrating your survival.

At the end of the novel, when Francie is getting ready to move from her childhood apartment, she notices the tree–the tree that men had tried to chop down and burn. It was still intact.

"It lived. And nothing could destroy it."

Thursday, July 14, 2016

An Emotional Experience with The Nightingale

"He thinks one's life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end."


We learn about war in our history classes. We read disturbing newspaper stories about violence in the world. We might say, "That's horrible. Incomprehensible." We may even have a pang in our gut for a little while. Then we get on with our life.


I recently listened to Steve Wozniak talk with enthusiasm about virtual reality. He explained how the technology will be a game changer. Not only will you be able to land yourself in another world, but the experience will become an emotional experience. It made me think about the book I just finished reading which took place in World War II.

With no disrespect to Mr. Wozniak, some books have the ability to transport us into another world and take us on an emotional journey. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was one such book. Not only could I not quit thinking about the story, but I became astutely conscious of the ease and convenience of my life. The other day I grabbed three napkins nonchalantly. Then I thought to myself, "How wasteful. Vianne would've done better."

Vianne and Isabelle are sisters from a small town outside of Paris. Germans have just occupied the country. With a deceased mother and an absent father who came home damaged from World War I, the women had their share of tragedy even before the second war broke out. Vianne is now raising her daughter by herself while her husband has gone off to be a soldier. Isabelle escapes her boarding school to live with an apathetic father in Paris.

Vianne and Isabelle's responses to the French Occupation are revealed through their personalities which are written in intimate and nuanced detail. Vianne is a cautious mother, motivated by the fear she feels for her family. Isabelle is the brash younger sister who takes on an orphan's perspective, having been palpably ignored by both her sister and her father. When Germans infiltrate their lives, Isabelle becomes determined to find meaning in her life by taking part of the resistance.

Through the sisters, we live through the horrors of the war. Scarcity, fear, torture, pain, rape, and death. Author Kristin Hannah doesn't only create a compelling story in which both of the sisters make brave contributions in the war, but she creates scenes with such intricate descriptions and details, it's impossible not to have a visceral reaction. People starved with hardly any rations. People burned everything to keep warm. People froze crossing mountains to find free country. People, children were ruthlessly shot for no reason. And of course, millions of people were massacred.

Despite all of the ugliness of the war, goodness and love seep through the actions of the good and courageous people. A love story develops. A family becomes reunited. Lives are saved.

The end of the book takes place in 1995, when one of the sisters is being recognized at a reunion ceremony. Her son asks his mother why he had never known about her contributions to the war. She responds, "Men tell stories...Women get on with it."

We need both of these things to deal with the horrors of the past. We need the stories. And we need to get on with it.