Saturday, October 20, 2012


When I was ten years old, I was helping my Memere clean out her basement when I came across a 1942 hardcover copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, buried amid dusty boxes of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. It was inscribed by my great-great aunt Anna Fritz, who had bought it for a book club.

Over the next decade, that book become one of my most beloved possessions. I read it at least a dozen times, at first because I couldn’t always get to the library to stock up on new reading material, and later because it had become a kind of summertime ritual. I’d pass long, hot days with my feet up, caught in the story of Francie Nolan and her family in Brooklyn during the height of the industrial era. The book didn’t present me with a neatly wrapped plot or characters who did the right thing. There was prostitution, alcoholism and a gritty landscape of factories and tenements and sharp ethnic divisions. Like many of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was based on a deeply felt sense of place. But unlike many other books I read at that age, Francie Nolan’s place in the world wasn’t a pastoral farm or pristine wilderness but a dirty, crowded city exploding with humanity. 

My experience rereading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was as much about the physical book itself as about the story. My 1942 copy has a dark green embossed cover, yellowed pages and the unmistakable smell of an old book. I read it every year until the pages began to fall out. Someone has since bought me a new paperback version, but I haven’t opened it. It isn’t the same.

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