Tenacious things, trees are

When I was a kid, there was a forest behind my house. It led all the way back to the road beyond the field, far off from the end of my dead end road. During my sophomore year of college, they chopped it all down and preceded to build McMansions in the empty lot. I cried. It wasn’t just that they chopped down trees. They’d chopped down where I’d played as a kid, paths I’d traipsed with my dog, a log I liked to sit on and read near a small stream. Those were my woods, my trees, my flowers and some one came along and built monstrosities no one can afford there. I didn’t open my curtains for three years. Want to know why I finally opened them? The trees were starting to come back. At least the smaller shrub like ones that bordered our yard with the woods. The wildflowers had long ago reclaimed the small hill, reminding me of the early summers where sweet peas went as far as the eye could see. I figured I would meet Mother Nature halfway and realize it would take her a lot longer to give me the towering giants of my childhood and enjoy the little she’d been able to regrow in a short time. The point is, my childhood was measured in trees, much like Francie’s was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Only her tree was growing out of the concrete and refuse of the poor neighborhoods and it was if anything, much more stubborn than my trees just managing to regain a foothold next to my home.

While this is yet another book I should have read long before now, and if I ever have a daughter her reading list is growing by the second, I am also glad I found Francie now for the end of her story. As a kid I would not have appreciated the ending of Francie’s narrative. I would have been looking for her happy ending, the comforting ending that would assure me that all would be well for me some day. We aren’t so sure of that as Francie’s story draws to a close. She is finally heading off to college (go UM!) but she’s lost who she thought was the love of her life. She’s gained a man as a dad who could take care of her mother and baby sister but still grieved for her handsome papa who slowly drank himself to death. She was smart but scared, determined but still longing for something she could never have. She was every twenty-something in the middle of their quarter life crisis even if she is only seventeen as the book ends. I was glad to find Francie now because her struggles remind me of myself as I still fight to adjust to this adult life I have now. Francie’s nostalgia for her childhood, for the days when she knew what to expect and what was expected of her hit a chord with me. I often do that still, wishing against hope that I could go back to those comfortable, carefree summer days in the woods they cut down.

From The Heroine’s Bookshelf

Another reason the story resonates with me is it is a story of a family of women. Strong-willed, smart, determined women who often realize their men are more of an accessory than a necessity. Reminded me of a paper I wrote once about Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Alcott’s Work where the men become the obstacle, not the goal of the female characters. Francie’s mother is pure strength but she doesn’t understand her eldest daughter. They are too much alike, cut from the same cloth with fatal differences than mean they can never be close. Her papa had been the dreamer, the man who got Francie and once he was gone, she was on her own. Yet, with her mother, her aunts and her grandmother’s example, she keeps going and when she loses the man she loves (in a really unrealistic quick moment in the book that rang false to me in a book that was brilliantly written otherwise), her mother truthfully tells her that she’ll love again but she’ll never forget him. The women in this family love and lose children, husbands, homes and yet nothing destroys them. The tree growing against all the odds in the hostile environment of Brooklyn, the tree Francie safely sits under to read as a child is her family of women, shielding her until the tree has to be cut down and grow out of the ashes on her own, elsewhere, where it can someday protect her children.

So to recap, a coming of age story with a brilliant female protagonist surrounded by inspiring, if somewhat unorthodox, women who uses her brains to raise above her upbringing to head west to go to university and the sky is the limit…talk about a book made for me. Seriously though, this is a book a person can read at different times in their life and always find the advice they are looking for, always with the idea that the tree growing against all odds, even when it’s burned down, will always find a way to start over again.


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