Francie Nolan grew up in an exceedingly poor Irish family in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Her story is chronicled in the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Facing hours on the road recently, I picked this audio book off the library to keep me company. The 13 disks that make up the book held me spellbound. Francie and her brother Neeley picked rags and scrounged tinfoil for pennies that went into the family savings – a tin can nailed to the floor of the closet. They played games like ‘North Pole Explorer’ that taught them to view the days when the family had no food to eat as an adventure.
In spite of serious hardship, the children grew up with an attitude of optimism and hope, in large part because of their parents. Their mother – who worked as a scrub woman cleaning tenement buildings – was committed to making sure her children had the education she didn’t have herself, requiring them to read one page of the Bible and one page of the Complete Works of Shakespeare each day. In spite of his shortcomings, their father, who died of chronic alcoholism and pneumonia when the children were 11 and 10, always made his children feel special and loved.
Revisiting this story, which I’d read many years ago, reminded me of just how resilient children can be. The children were not oblivious to their situation. They knew they were poor. They knew their father was a drunk. But their growing up experiences taught them pride as well as shame; made them resourceful and creative.
By the time Francie is 16, she and Neeley are referring to their childhoods as ‘the good old days.’ They lament that their sister who is only 3 will never know all the fun they had growing up in Brooklyn.
If you’re looking to connect with a really good book, I encourage you to look to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And listen to the audio book if you can. The narration by Carrington MacDuffie, a recording artist and spoken word performer, brings life to every character who walks the streets of Brooklyn.