living the book: a tree grows in brooklyn

I have a habit of listening to various podcasts during the day– so many that co-workers pop into my office and constantly wonder if I’ve got someone on speaker phone. If I’m not playing music at the loudest volume my desktop will allow, there’s guaranteed to be a random show going on in the background. Snap Judgement is one of my recent favorites. It’s helmed by Glynnn Washington, an Oakland based radio host, whose pilot show won The Public Radio Talent Quest back in 2007 and who has one of the fastest growing shows on NPR. The story I listened to today got me thinking about books, and more specifically, living lives based on books that touched you in a special way during childhood.

The segment centered around a man named Vince in Austin who created a Cathedral of Junk based off of a book he read in his youth in Germany: Serafin and the Wonder Machine. There is not much available about the book online but the podcast has a great interview with Vince outlining the start of his project in 1989, the idea he had based on the book, and how he is living out his childhood fantasy by creating a magical space out of people’s discarded objects. You can listen to it here.

The show got me thinking about the influence books we read in childhood have on us later in life. The one that sticks out the most for me is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

I pulled my tattered copy off of the bookshelf tonight and held it tightly to my chest. There are so many different lessons from this book that have stuck with me for the last fifteen years. I initially read it around the time I was 12 or 13 years of age and wanted nothing more than a fire escape and a big old tree to sit underneath while going through teenage growing pains.

I now read it anually. As an adult, my needs are a little more nuanced than a spell on a fire escape but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn still fits the bill.

Francie, Neely, and mama had a very fine meal. Each had a thick slice of the “tongue,” two pieces of sweet-smelling rye bread spread with unsalted butter, a sugar bun apiece and a mug of strong strong hot coffee with a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk on the side.

There was a special Nolan idea about the coffee. It was their one great luxury. Mama made a big potful each morning and reheated it for dinner and supper and it got stronger as the day wore on. It was an awful lot of water and very little coffee but mama put a lump of chicory in it which made it taste strong and bitter. Each one was allowed three cups a day with milk. Other times you could help yourself to a cup of black coffee anytime you felt like it. Sometimes when you had nothing at all and it was raining and you were alone in the flat, it was wonderful to know that you could have something even though it was only a cup of black and bitter coffee.

Neeley and Francie loved coffee but seldom drank it. Today, as usual, Neeley let his coffee stand black and ate his condensed milk spread on bread. He sipped a little of the black coffee for the sake of formality. Mama poured out Francie’s coffee and put the milk in it even though she knew that the child wouldn’t drink it.

Francie loved the smell of coffee and the way it was hot. As she ate her bread and meat, she kept one hand curved about the cup enjoying its warmth. From time to time, she’d smell the bitter sweetness of it. That was better than drinking it. At the end of the meal, it went down the sink.

Francie, the narrator and main character, is allowed three cups of coffee per day by Katie, her mother. Though the family is poor and lead by Johnny, a drunk Irishman lounge singer, who can’t hold a job to save his life, she has the luxury of doing whatever she wants with that cup of coffee: she can be wasteful like rich folks if she pleases, she can drink it down in one gulp, she can have it on the aforementioned fire escape with her book. That cup of coffee is one of the only things in life she can choose to do with what she pleases.

I found not one, but two old bus transfers from Milwaukee while paging through the book.

Another idea that stuck out for me was the Nolan family bank. Katie took an old tin coffee can, cut the sides into little Vs and nailed them into a closet floor, thus creating a tin can bank. Francie and Neely were expected to pitch into this bank with their earnings from selling pieces of tin foil, jar lids and other junk items to Carney the local junk man. Half of whatever they gleaned from Carney went into the tin can bank. Katie also contributed to the tin can bank, whose sole purpose was to gain enough money to buy land one day. When Johnny dies, the money is used for his cemetary plot but putting money into a new tin bank is one of the first things Neely and Francie do when they start working real jobs. I don’t have the balls to nail a little tin can into my own closet floor and I wholeheartedly believe in saving money but if and when I do own a house I want a real tin can bank stashed inside a closet somewhere.

The final lifestyle lesson, and perhaps the most important, is that of reading itself. There is a three page scene towards the beginning of the book that features a conversation with Katie and her mother Mary right after Francie was born. Mary comes to visit Katie in her apartment where she is resting with Francie. Neither of them know that Johnny, the drunken husband, has lost his job as the janitor of a school.

“What do I know,” Katie asks her mother. “You are poor, Mother. Johnny and I are poor. The baby will grow up to be poor. We can’t be any more than we are this day.”

Katie’s mother Mary reveals her guilt at not sending her daughters to school, saying she was “ignorant and did not know at first that the children of folk like us were allowed the free education of this land.” She tells Katie that the secret to getting ahead “lies in the reading and the writing”. That every day she must read one page from one good book to her child and that she must do this until her child learns to read, and that she must then make her child read to her one page from one good book every day. Katie promises she will read, and asks for a good book.

Her Catholic mother surprises her by saying Shakespeare and the Protestant bible, even though “it is not good faith for a Catholic to say so but I believe the Protestant bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story of earth and beyond it.” As an Irish Catholic myself, this was pretty heavy stuff to take in during the impressionable teenage years. Mary tells Katie that she must read a page of each to her child, even if she doesn’t understand the words or meanings and that she must do this so her “child will grow up knowing what is great- knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

I have promised myself I would follow the fictional Mary Rommely’s advice since I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I mean it. Granted, I will probably steer away from the bible and Shakespeare, too, moving more towards books like D’Aulaires Greek Myths but the lesson remains: a page a day, from two books a day. Literacy is how we get ahead. I don’t think many can argue with that.

1. It is okay to waste coffee.
2. Save money for land.
3. Read books.

Three small lessons that have stuck with me from one of my favorite books. What about you? What books helped outline your worldview? What lessons have you learned?

(Day TWO! xxoo)

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10 responses to “living the book: a tree grows in brooklyn

  1. This book is one my ‘Books to Read in 2012′ list. Can’t wait to get into it!

  2. Stories of people far from our everyday lives are food for our souls!

  3. you love this book so much, you gave me my own copy some years back (for a birthday, i think!)

    i’ve read it twice and it’s sitting on a shelf looking at me now. maybe i’ll revisit it again soon!
    :-)

  4. The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton. It is the journey not the destination that is important. Because we take ourselves with us wherever we go. Nice piece, Thanks,

    Jim

  5. stumbled on your blog while doing a search for “blue and white curtains,” thought I’d follow along because I appreciate your use of bright colors and spray paint (am in the middle of a spray paint project, stalled because of the northern Illinois weather – after one coat, I affirm that you should never spray paint in your basement) kept going despite my jealousy at the fact that I will probably never make it to Panama City, appreciate the quick book club discussion of a book that I make a point to read annually, for some reason always with a bowl of popcorn (stand in for peppermints?) – at any rate, another point that always stuck with me was the fact that when Francie asks her mother if she should have spent the night with Lee, Katie answers her as a mother and as a woman, and tells her yes…

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