Rooted in Brooklyn

Rooted in Brooklyn

By Malcolm Sharps

Prompted by Betty Smith’s iconic novel of childhood, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Malcolm Sharps reflects on his own childhood and family life and attempts a comparison

Betty Smith, author of the semi-autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, wrote in an introduction to a later edition of her novel that the reactions of many of her readers were of a kind. One said: ‘I’ve never lived in Brooklyn but someone must have told you the story of my life. Another said: ‘I was a girl like Francie Nolan’. And another: ‘My family had the same kind of struggle’. Someone else, I’m sure  with their tongue in the cheek, even wrote: ‘I’m boiling mad. You wrote my book before I had a chance to get round to it’.

Smith’s book was a whirlwind success in its time and the story it tells became widely known, particularly after it made it to the screen in Elia Kazan’s essentially faithful but more sentimental film rendition. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn relates the story of Francie Nolan, born into a poor Irish American family and growing up in New York at the start of the twentieth century. It traces her life along with a brother Neely, just one year her junior, and her relationships with the members of a close family, particularly with her beautiful toil- and care-worn mother and her irresistibly charming but drink-blighted father. From the earliest days, when Francie is encouraged to read a page of the Bible or Shakespeare every day, education is seen as her escape route from poverty. She has the ambition of becoming a writer; it is an ambition which grows like the tree surrounded by tenements in the Brooklyn yard where she lives, surviving with little sunlight or water, without the richness of soil to support it, seemingly only sustained by an inner will and hope.

When I began reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I felt something close to the opposite of those envious readers Betty Smith spoke about because I felt I could never write a book like hers. It was so vital and radiant, for one thing; so aware of its locality and how the characters emerge out of that impoverished New York world. Smith’s writing style is ever accessible; there is an ‘all that it needs to be’ sufficiency about the prose that might misleadingly be called ‘simple’, but the skill of writing so never is. Whoever can write in a simple style without quickly sounding dully factual or juvenile has mastered one of the greatest skills of writing.

Smith creates her Brooklyn with a brand of realism that is touched with luminosity, employing a sensitively judged phrase or a magical combination of words that delightfully encapsulates a person or scene. And it isn’t an accident that I use the word ‘delightful’, because Smith delights in the world she creates, endowing it with an affection which the reader can’t help but share. Here is how she presents the loveable and morally non-conformist Sissy, Francie’s favourite aunt.

‘Sissy had two great failings. She was a great lover and a great mother. She had so much of tenderness in her, so much of wanting to give of herself to whoever needed what she had, whether it was her money, her time, the clothes off her back, her pity, her understanding, her friendship or her companionship and love. She was mother to everything that came her way. She loved men, yes. She loved women too, and old people and especially children. How she loved children! She loved the down-and-outers. She wanted to make everybody happy. She had tried to seduce the good priest who heard her infrequent confessions because she felt sorry for him. She thought he was missing the greatest joy on earth by being committed to a life of celibacy.’

Sissy is one of the most original creations of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, loving not wisely but too well. There was no aunt Sissy to relate in my own family. But the fact is, by the time I was an adult I had forgotten so much about that time in my life, and something I feel is far more shameful which makes me hesitate even more about writing a family history in any of my fiction: I decided my family just wasn’t interesting enough to be turned into a book; our lives didn’t seem to follow any identifiable pattern or lead me to any conclusions. It was all a confusion of disconnected events, a tangled set of fortuitous circumstances which revealed nothing of the nature of living.

But when I had finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I began thinking…wasn’t Francie’s father something like my own in many ways? And wasn’t Katie Nolan just like my own mother? And even if there was no one in my family quite like aunt Sissy, wasn’t my aunt Mary just as interesting in almost the opposite way? If Sissy had too much love in her, my aunt Mary had an abundance of spite. She had a husband and daughter, but at times she was as sour as a jilted spinster and at other times she could don a false smile and play the most terrible tease with men, though she actually had a distaste for sex and an indifference to all physicality.

Then I began to remember more about my family and find more similarities. And soon I had put together a parallel life story to Francie’s. Is it as Tolstoy famously says, that all happy families are alike? Or did Tolstoy miss the point? Is it that all families – happy or unhappy – are actually alike? I don’t mean to suggest any book I would write would be as good as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I hope my readers will forgive me if in making a comparison I mix the two stories. Regard it as if there is one tree which had its roots in that concrete yard in Brooklyn, New York, but has its branches reaching out to Liverpool, England and maybe to many other places.

Living in one of the apartments below the Nolans is their friend, Flossie Gaddis, a woman desperate to form a relationship with a man. She does not have much success in her pursuit and sublimates her desire for excitement and romance in her love for fancy dress balls, for which she makes her own costumes.

The costumes were especially designed to hide her disfigured right arm. As a child, she had fallen into a wash boiler of scalding hot water carelessly left standing on the kitchen floor. Her right arm had been horribly burned and she grew up with its skin withered and purple. She always wore long sleeves.

When I read that, at first I formed no connection with anyone I knew. How could I have forgotten my own mother’s disfigured hand? It must be the way my mother normalised her injury: she hid it so well you wouldn’t have known about it unless you’d been looking for it. When she was in her first job operating a box-making machine, the stapler had come down directly on her hand; where it had penetrated the ball of her thumb was a vivid raised purple welt that would remain there for all time.  She hid her injury so well and kept her left hand always close to her side, never ever raising it higher than her shoulder. She could use the tips of her fingers to hold objects but the injury left her in excruciating pain from an exposed nerve and she couldn’t actually grasp or make a fist and she had to guard against it ever being touched. That such injuries occurred was not exceptional. This was the world our families knew, with unsafe work practices, unguarded machines and exposure to dangerous materials. Then every generation suffered from at least one war, World War I, then World War 2, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Malaysian Emergency, continuing until the Aden Emergency, when the last British conscripted soldier came home. They lived in that dangerous, often deadly, world because there was no safer one for them to opt for.

Betty Smith begins her narrative with Francie and the other kids out on the streets near her home, where every free minute is spent looking for scrap that could be of any value, however small:

She and her brother, Neeley, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home slowly from school with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers.

And of course, being kids, the scrap was turned into money that was turned into candy almost immediately. From my own childhood, I recognise some of the candy Francie bought, the striped candy sticks and, later to be banned, sweet cigarettes, but not brown rock candy. And another thing that was the same for both Francie and me was a thing she calls a prize bag, which we called a lucky bag. It was a small sealed paper bag that contained a toy or toys whose identity was unknown until you opened it. Somehow the expectation was always greater than the worth of the gift, yet at that age expectation is near indestructible and, though you’d been disappointed last time, you kept on trying. Francie’s friend receives a coarse cambric handkerchief in one bag; that’s far too practical for my times. It says a lot for the changes in kids’ lives since Francie’s times that we wanted fantasy from our gifts; we had the basics already, we expected useless but exciting toys, sometimes it was a plastic figure which could be a soldier or a cowboy or an Indian, a three-dimensional model with a flat, wafer-thin profile.

Why is it that the world of a Brooklyn child circa 1900 seemed very familiar to me before I read Betty Smith, though I’m not American and I wasn’t born in Brooklyn, and I didn’t grow up in a poor Irish family? Maybe it goes back to street kids with their soap boxes on wheels in the myth created by George M. Cohan in his musical shows. Cohan himself was, as you will know, real second- generation New York Irish. Like Frances Nolan, many of Cohan’s kids are recognisably Irish: Mary, Billy (a girl), Nelly Kelly. Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when she was in her early forties, by which time her early childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century had already become ‘period’, that period to which George M. Cohan inevitably belonged; in fact, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contains a George M. Cohan patriotic song, You’re a Grand Old Flag.

The kids in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are territorial, staking their claim to their own areas; there is rivalry between Christians and Jews but it keeps within certain limits, disputes are verbal matches only and end with symbolic truces and without great violence. There was no permanent street gang that I hung out with, and no real gang in my area. But occasionally five or six of us would group and prowl the neighbourhood, as groups will. We were so puny and innocuous, our mob was more likely to prompt ridicule than terror. There was an old villa at the edge of our district, one that had become isolated due to the German aerial bombardment having swept away all of the neighbouring villas. Fifteen years after the last bomb had fallen, the surrounding ground hadn’t been built on and the villa was still occupied by the original two very old ladies whom the enemy had not managed to dislodge. An isolated crumbling house with just two old women occupants; the house very soon got the name of the Witches’ Den and their practice of putting stockings in empty jam jars and placing them in the front window didn’t help detract from our belief that the old ladies really were witches. We should have known better but the temptation to explore the lair of real live witches proved irresistible. We formed a querulous little queue at the door of the house, goading each other on. ‘You do it’. ‘No, you do it.’ ‘You do it, it was your idea’. No one had the nerve to ring the doorbell, to place themselves as the first in line, none dared to risk being the one most likely to be nabbed if one of these practitioners of the dark arts came storming out and caught us. At last a tiny tremulous hand did the deed and the bell sounded and the only thing I can remember is that we were too terrified to hang around to observe the results. We ran off in all directions. We did it only once. We were good kids: good kids scare easily.

Central to the first two-thirds of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the relationship between Francie and her father, a singing waiter. Yes, everyone loved Johnny Nolan. He was a sweet singer of sweet songs.  People loved him but Johnny Nolan was unfortunately a heavy drinker and a hopeless case in his own eyes and he doesn’t try to hide it from his daughter. It’s this honesty between them which is what is most touching about the relationship; he confesses to Francie what he can’t openly express to his wife Kate, nor probably to any priest. He pours out his whole sad life to her.

I was a boy of twelve then. I sang in saloons for the drunks and they threw pennies at me. Then I started working around saloons and restaurants … waiting on people. …” He was quiet awhile with his thoughts. “I always wanted to be a real singer, the kind that comes out on the stage all dressed up. But I didn’t have no education and I didn’t know the first way about how to start in being a stage singer. Mind your job, my mother told me. You don’t know how lucky you are to have work, she said. So I drifted into the singing waiter business. It’s not steady work. I’d be better off if I was just a plain waiter. That’s why I drink,” he finished up illogically. She looked up at him as though she were going to ask a question. But she said nothing.

My own father had no problems either finding work or working. But outside of work, I knew my father could do nothing without my mother’s assistance, nothing that could help him engage with the real adult world. She read and explained to him every letter he got from his employer or the government. She filled in his tax return and dealt with all the bills, she made every decision in the house that meant the outlay of some money or the making of any kind of permanent alteration. Maybe my father replaced the light bulbs but it was always my mother who first made the discovery that the bulb had gone and, just as importantly, knew where the replacement bulb was kept. He was a child. And when he was with me he was like a child with another child, so he spoke to me like an equal even when I was eight and nine years old.

My father was not an educated man, being the product of a country school that was a successor to the 18th and 19th century ‘dame school’, a place with basic educational aims, providing a survival kit of reading, writing and arithmetic, beyond which they did not expect their students to go much further academically. True to expectations, my father left without a certificate of any kind and was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship. He had snippets of disconnected knowledge in his head, as well as lines and half-lines from an assortment of plays and poems he’d read, which came to him as appropriate to quote at odd moments. He was very seldom serious, irony and fantasy were the ways in which he was able to refer to the world and he spoke fantastically and amusingly when he talked to me. The things he told me, which frequently I only half-understood, weren’t always so funny for me, things he said made me almost fear him, but it wasn’t personal dread of him, it was fear which comes from idolisation, the anticipation of wholly understanding something he was saying, and fearing that I wouldn’t in the end and would appear stupid and disappoint him. Almost the only near-serious thing I remember him telling me was a practical lesson in family morality. He would put one arm around me when he spoke to me in this way, keeping what he said like a secret that had to be kept just between ourselves.

He looked at me with dead seriousness at first. ‘I would never change your mother for anyone in the world, you know that’, then he would fail to hold his serious facial expression and add, ‘not even if there was a young popsy chasing after me’. I was nine years old and I had no idea how young a young popsy was or how much older my mother was supposed be. She seemed like the youngest, most shiningly beautiful woman in the world to me and I saw my father no more clearly, either. I didn’t see, for example, that between his upper and lower jaws his cheeks were permanently dished as if he were a far older man. It was the result of months of starvation and a cocktail of tropical diseases he contracted pushing back against the Japanese troop incursion in the Burma Campaign. Supply lines over the mountainous densely jungle covered terrain were continually broken and food supplies were disrupted, until they stopped completely. First they killed the pack mules and lived on the meat for a while. Later there was nothing but whatever they could find in the jungle and stagnant, infested water to drink.

Why did my mother, who was the most intelligent one in the family, who should have excelled in school, end up working on a machine in a box-making factory, a machine which injured her for life? It followed from an event in the tradition of classic tragedy from which only further bad comes and then more bad ensues.

My grandfather worked on the docks. I’m sure, because such distinctions were so important to anyone who worked with the hint of an acquired skill, I need to hurriedly say he didn’t work as a regular docker, not one who did the most menial of tasks physically loading and unloading ships. He was a dock gateman, a job with responsibilities and paperwork but still with some hands-on duties when ships arrived and departed. He joined in with the tying up of the newly arrived ships and was well aware of their immense power as they strained on the mooring ropes. For years my grandfather must have walked the quayside passing the bollards spaced out at intervals along the quay and given them no more regard than the gulls standing on them. When ships were docking he must have handled the ropes a hundred times, done it finally without engaging his mind at all, the instructions were inside his muscles and nerves, his body could do it all alone, passing the rope around the thick steel bollard and passing it around again and again until he had wound up the slack. Perhaps my grandfather became too familiar with the routine, enough to feel a moment might go by less observed than the others, his full attention was not required, he trusted his body to know its own actions. In that instant of relaxed attention he was up close against the bollard with the line to the ship on his outside and the ship at that moment moved outward in the berth, stretching the rope tighter and tighter until the ship’s movement halted. My grandfather was crushed instantly between the rope and the bollard. When the line slackened again they carried away a useless broken frame of a body that a moment before had been a strong, healthy man. He did not die then but was taken home and never left his room again, his death certificate said his death came two years later, but everyone in the family knew the certificate told a lie.

My grandmother had lost the main support for the family. The elder children, three of them, including my mother, had to leave school and start work. This is how my mother missed out on her education, this is why she did a soul-destroying job on a box-stitching machine, which didn’t destroy her soul entirely but eventually rendered her left hand all but useless.

When my own father died I was still too young to leave school; in any case, there would have been no necessity to do so. What had happened in the years between my grandfather’s accident and my father’s death was that a thing which many Americans call Socialism had occurred, a disaster that befell my country between ‘42 and ‘48 under the stewardship of economist William Beveridge; and I was an exultant beneficiary. A quiet social revolution that many see as a reaction to the Second World War had taken place, Parliamentary Act by Parliamentary Act the formation of a social net that meant a place to live and enough money to avoid absolute poverty was guaranteed to everyone, together with guaranteed health provision and free education, initially including University, another of Socialism’s disasters which I later enjoyed.

Unlike Francie, I had no particularly sympathetic feelings towards my surroundings. I was more like Francie’s brother Neely, my hometown was simply the place I found myself in. Liverpool in the 50s seemed as drab to me as an old sepia print, a smoke-blackened port swept by perpetual wind and rain. It had none of the qualities for me which Francie finds in Brooklyn.

It’s mysterious here in Brooklyn. It’s like- yes-like a dream. The houses and streets don’t seem real. Neither do the people.” “They’re real enough-the way they fight and holler at each other and the way they’re poor, and dirty, too.” “But it’s like a dream of being poor and fighting. They don’t really feel these things. It’s like it’s all happening in a dream.” “Brooklyn is no different than any other place,” said Neeley firmly. “It’s only your imagination makes it different. But that’s all right,” he added magnanimously, “as long as it makes you feel so happy.”

If my family was largely a happy one, it wasn’t because we felt at ease living in our district. Many of those around us lived a proletarian life far more primitive than ours. Don’t imagine we felt part of a united front of the working classes; no securely middle class family could imagine the disdain we felt for people of our own kind who fell below our standards; they lived too close to us for our easy tolerance of them. Living as they did a few doors down in the same street, naturally we felt threatened by their every misdeed. When it was suspected that a young woman had set herself up as a prostitute in a house directly opposite ours, it was viewed as an outrage. My mother and grandmother watched every evening through the window, noting with mounting indignation and alarm each arrival at the neighbour’s door, though it was never clear if they were clients or the woman simply held open house to a wide and eclectic range of male friends.

And then again, we had to live with them and accept. The people who ran the combined general store and post office were found embezzling money from the post office side; the only victim was the postal service.  I didn’t stop going to the shop, I didn’t stop talking to the son at the counter for much longer than it took to me to get served, we were good friends even if just in the shop time, but we didn’t once dare mention why his mother suddenly disappeared for a few months, though I knew well it was to serve her sentence. Not a word of it was spoken on her return. And maybe I should allow myself today to relax my judgement a little and in retrospect feel sympathy for her. But they were richer than the rest of us, she’d been greedy and part of the reason I didn’t dare speak about her disappearance at the time was because I felt she’d got her just deserts.

A recurring focus of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the animosity and unforgiving nature of women towards women. Pregnancy out of wedlock, in particular, is deemed to be something which women brought on themselves through their wickedness or ‘bad blood’, and the scandalous behaviour of aunt Sissy with her many pregnancies and as many stillbirths and early child deaths, as well as Johnny’s bouts of drunkenness, draw the unsympathetic attention of the female neighbours. If my own aunt Mary could be unfair in her treatment of men, she reserved her most damning discriminatory judgements for her own sex. If there was a sex attack in the newspaper, astoundingly aunt Mary always sided with the male attacker. “These girls lead men on”, she pronounced, and the man was excused of his crime. Even at age twelve I knew that my aunt was talking poisonous nonsense. But I knew better than to start a quarrel with her I could never win. Time has allowed me to feel no ill will towards aunt Mary and to see that though we all suffered from her sourness, she suffered from if most of all. It was like an incurable illness that kept her distanced from everyone else, confining her to her own unloving body.

He was doomed and no one knew it better than Johnny Nolan. The death of Johnny Nolan functions in the narrative of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to project Francie into the world as a figure operating with greater independence. The family is made poorer by Johnny’s death but Katie is adamant, in spite of their reduced circumstances, that the children must stay in school long enough to graduate from eighth grade. After graduation, Francie is initially forced into mostly dull work, her role in relation to Katie is reversed and she becomes the key support for her mother. No one takes Johnny Nolan’s place, not even Francie’s mother, not in the pages of the narrative, not in her heart. But these are the mechanics of plot; at a psychological level also a key player is removed from the game, and the book loses something vital as a result. Dramatically, at the two-thirds point, Johnny’s death still comes too soon. Without the cohesive thread of his relationship with Francie, the forward drive of the book diminishes; there is already a tendency for the chapters to stand more as individual short stories, and this becomes even more apparent.

When the news of Johnny’s death is passed on to the children, it is a moment of shock which deprives them of sensation for a time. They came before her and stood waiting. “Your father is dead, ” she told them. Francie stood numb. There was no feeling of surprise or grief. There was no feeling of anything. Now, I too can say Betty Smith wrote this part of my book before I had a chance to get round to it, but I’m not boiling mad with her, she just describes the way things were.

Where does death come in our lives? Not when chosen by a writer to balance the events of a story, but in real life? It seems to me it is always at the wrong place, always too soon, always when those who experience it as on-lookers are not complete enough people to cope. They may already be old or be very young, all the same, they meet death always with the same unpreparedness.

I remember my mother sent me out so that I wouldn’t be around when the ambulance came to take my father away. But maybe it came late, because when I arrived back it was still in the street with the motor running and the two rear doors closed firmly shut against the living, hopeful world. My father was already inside, I knew. What could I do? They wouldn’t open the door for me to say my last good-bye to him, I felt it would be a stupid thing to knock and I was at the age when seeming stupid was the greatest crime anyone could commit. I walked down the street, slowly approaching the vehicle, hoping its appalling mass would start up, fearing I would soon be right up against it, and I would be given absolute proof of my ineffectiveness and redundancy. The motor was still running, they had to start up now, they had to do it soon, and yet it remained threatening me like some terrible pulsing machine that had brought death with it.  And then the vehicle eased forward and I followed behind for a step or two, keeping pace as long as I could. It picked up speed and was soon well ahead of me maintaining and extending the distance. As I watched it, it seemed to remain floating in mid-air at the level of my eyes, not moving but getting progressively smaller; now, when it was so small that its engine sound was hardly audible to me, I realised the ambulance had reached the end of the street and in that moment of realisation it was gone, gone finally far too soon, swallowed forever by the hole in time which receives all events with passive muteness and exchanges them for an indifferent and unalterable vacancy. I was never to see my father again.

One branch of human wisdom argues that as adults we never cease to be children inside. I’m not sure that’s true, at least, it isn’t true of everyone, not to the same degree, but I do know that whether we experience childhood as a dreamed fairy tale or a crushing cataclysm that seals our fate for all time, or whether we experience it as some measure of both, childhood is something we never entirely recover from.

5 Responses to Rooted in Brooklyn

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    What a great read with morning coffee. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a bit of a forgotten classic, is revived here in a way that will surely garner new readers. Equally, and in some ways more interesting to me, are the characters of the author’s own childhood, which he is able to delineate so clearly with a true writer’s eye and the understanding of a mature and intelligent memoirist.

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    A brilliant intertwining of review and autobiography. Malcolm Sharps’ insights into A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are highly perceptive and his own childhood experiences are movingly related. It all leaves the reader wishing for more.

  3. David Daniel says:

    Mr. Sharps’s perceptions, as ever, run deep. I confess to never having read Betty Smith’s novel–don’t think I’ve even seen the film version; though I suddenly feel inspired to do both.

    I agree with Mr. Bendall’s observation about the skillful intertwining of stories in Sharps’s piece. It’s an inspired way to reconsider a writer and her work, and to share parts of one’s own journey. The Liverpool of Mr. Sharps’s boyhood comes crisply to life with humor, love, and pathos–as Smith’s seems to (judging by the excerpts).

    It may well be that none of us ever entirely recovers from childhood, but Smith and Sharps redeem enough of theirs to remind us how connected we all really are.