by Betty Smith
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
This would have to be one of the most enjoyable and beautiful books I have read in some time. It is primarily the story of Francie Nolan, who grows up in pre-World War I Brooklyn, in extreme material poverty, but never a poverty of spirit.
She is 11 years old when the book begins, living with her hardworking and steely mother, and her handsome and charming, well-meaning but addicted to drink father. Katie and Johnny, Francie’s mother and father married early at 18 and suffered the consequences. Having two children just one year apart, Katie is terrified of what their future will be. Her mother’s advice, who was an uneducated German immigrant: get two books, one of Shakespeare, another the Bible, and read a page to the children every night. Once they have learned to read, get the children to read it themselves.
Betty Smith wrote this book in 1943, and it is remarkable in its honesty about grinding poverty, and its liberal views about sexuality and women’s rights. It doesn’t even gloss over the fact that Katie, the mother loves her younger boy child Neely more than Francie, something she acknowledges, but can’t help and is always at pains to atone.
“Katie lost all of her tenderness although she gained in what people called character. She loved her little girl because she felt sorry for her. It was pity and obligation towards her she felt rather than love. Francie felt the way her mother thought about her. She grew an answering hardness against her mother and this hardness, paradoxically enough, brought them a little closer together because it made them more alike.”
This should be such a sad heart wrenching story: Katie, the mother, a pretty and slight woman is reduced to the hard backbreaking work of a janitor in various buildings to keep the family afloat. The father, Johnny, a charming Irishman is a dreamer, a wonderful singer who is reduced to occasional work as a singing waiter, in between drinking. But he adores his children, and they adore him, specially Francie, his favourite. The children are often hungry, and every penny counts against starvation.
The novel spans a number of years, and goes back in time to explore Katie and Johnny’s beginnings as well as extended family, but the heart of it is Francie’s story. She is an intelligent, alert, compassionate and imaginative child. She sees everything and questions it, including a belief in God. It is heartbreaking when her teacher gives her a C in an essay composition because her subject matter of alcoholism and despair is ‘sordid’.
“Sordid, filthy. Filthy? She thought of her father wearing a fresh collar every day of his life and shining his worn shoes as often as twice a day. … She remembered a hundred and one little tendernesses and acts of thoughtfulness on the part of her father. She remembered how everyone had loved him so. Her face got hot. She turned on Miss Garnder, her face twisted with fury. ‘Don’t you ever dare use that word about us!'”
There’s much cruelty in the story. At one stage, a rapist is on the loose in the neighbourhood, at another time a young mother with a baby born out-of-wedlock is abused and even physically attacked by other women for breaking the rules, that is daring to show the child in public without shame. Francie’s father is sacked and goes on a drinking bender which eventually leads to his death. Francie sees everything, and grows with it.
This book would be immensely sad and depressing, were it not for the knowledge imparted by the narrator, who shows us repeatedly the strength of Francie and her mother, specially after the death, only at thirty-four, of the father from pneumonia.
“She (Katie) had taken on an extra job in this week before Christmas. She got up earlier and worked faster at her flat cleaning. She rushed down to Gorling’s, the department store at the Polish end of Grand Street, where she worked from four to seven serving coffee and sandwiches to the salesgirls. Her family desperately needed that seventy-five cents that she earned each day.”
The reader knows that Francie, like the hardy Brooklyn tree, growing out of cement, will survive and and she will leave for college at the novel’s end.
Below: Betty Smith
Betty Smith, the author, lived the life of Francie in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the early twentieth century, and like Francie escaped to Michigan to attend college, studying journalism, literature and drama, and then going on to study a three year course at Yale Drama School. This bestselling novel was a huge hit with the public in ther midst of World War II, so much so that an Armed Forces edition came out almost immediately that would fit in soldiers’ rucksacks. Smith received many letters specially from young girls and soldiers, and invariably they would address her as Francie.
This was a profound book, so true in its laying bare the privations of poverty and what it means to be human. The New York Public Library rightly selected it as one of the Books of the Century. I would give it 4.5⭐️. As the foreword by Anne Quindlen says “It is not a showy book from a literary point of view. Its pages are not larded with metaphor. Its glory is in the clear-eyed descriptions of its scenes and people:
“When money gave out and food ran low, Katie and the children pretended they were explorers discovering the North Pole and had been trapped by a blizzard in a cave with just a little food. They had to make it last till help came. Mama divided up what food there was in the cupboard and called it rations and when the children were still hungry after a meal, she’d say, ‘Courage, my men, help will come soon.’ When some money came in and Mama bought a lot of groceries, she bought a little cake as celebration, and she’d stick a penny flag in it and say, ‘We made it, men. We got to the North Pole.’ One day after one of the ‘rescues’ Francie asked Mama: ‘When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason . Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?’ Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, ‘You found the catch in it.”