Thursday, October 7, 2010

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKYN and Other Adventures in Reading by Kerry Madden

There are books for me that I can climb back into and walk around and breathe again. I believe the most important one is Betty Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. I don't even know how many times I have read this book. I remember that I ordered it from a Scholastic Book Order when I was in 7th grade at St. Teresa's in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was worried that it would be too hard for me or possibly too boring. After all, I had just read the movie/book adaptation of Linda Blair's BORN INNOCENT and PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC, so I wasn't sure if A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN would suit my reading tastes. But Betty Smith went and ruined many books for me besides the Linda Blair movie adaptations. She also showed me a young girl growing up at the turn of the century in Brooklyn in a place called Williamsburg, and I knew those people. I knew them like my own family, and I couldn't get enough of them. I adored Aunt Evie and Aunt Sissy, and Francie's mother, Katie, and of course, Johnny Nolan, the dreamer, who loved his children and his stories and of course, drinking. I'm of Irish decent, and I recognized Johnny Nolan in a few Irish relatives of mine. I also recognized the no-nonsense, practicality of Katie Nolan from the women on both sides of the family. I read everything by Betty Smith from JOY IN THE MORNING, MAGGIE NOW, and TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER, but nothing was better than A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN although JOY IN THE MORNING was a joy to read.

I grew up in a house without a lot of books. Mother got us a library card in every new football town, but we didn't have many books with all the moving around. We had SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and LADIES HOME JOURNAL, and I learned to read the delicious "Can This Marriage Be Saved" in that magazine. I can recall a menacing green book that sat on the shelf called DARE TO DISCIPLINE by Dr. James Dodson. I also remember my mother reading GREEN DARKNESS by Anya Seton at the adult pool where we would go beg her for money for the snack bar and she'd shoo us away, warning:  "This is the adult pool! Beat it!" My father read Dale Carnegie's HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE and a slew of books about achieving the perfect golf swing. I also remember them both loving the book THE GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD by Don Robertson and reading parts of it aloud to us.

In 8th grade, I discovered Irwin Shaw's RICH MAN POOR MAN, and I became consumed by the lives of those two very different brothers during a weekend state basketball tournament for the Saint Teresa Titans. Seventh and eighth graders jumped on beds and took tons of pictures, and in every single picture I was in the corner reading. Later, when the pictures got developed, kids said, "Did you do anything at State besides read? We won by the way!" I was embarrassed. Of course, I knew the boys basketball team had won.

But A TREE GROWS IN THE BROOKLYN was the book I returned to again even as an adult, maybe especially as an adult. I loved this paragraph about Sunday Mass in Brooklyn: "On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o'clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to the early six o'clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to early mass, got it over with, and went home and slept all day absolved from sin."

I used to think about those people who stayed up all night in New York and then slept all day long. I wanted to be like them when I grew up and explore the city, and go to the theatre and eat Italian or Indian at midnight and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I was utterly and completely with Francie Nolan eating the peppermint wafers reading IF I WERE KING on the fire-escape beneath the Tree of Heaven when Betty Smith wrote: "It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the trees made fugitive patterns on the white pillow-case. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually, it was pre-empted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbing and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a present."


Yes, I even brought A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN with me to be a "focal point" while giving birth to my son, Flannery, at the Natural Childbirth Institute in Culver City, California in 1988. The midwife, Nancy McNeese Marshutz, whom I adored, advised me to bring pictures or objects that would help me focus during labor as suggested in Lamaze. Well, I set out A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN on a table, but when labor slammed into me with a force that I described at the time as "cinderblock surrealism,"A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN was the last thing on my mind. I never found my glasses, which meant I couldn't see a thing anyway, so I didn't focus on jack except having the baby. When I begged for painkillers, Nancy said, "Having the baby will be your painkiller." Of course, I'd like to think that I closed my eyes and thought of how Francie helped her mother, Katie, through the home birth of her little sister, Annie Laurie, but I know I didn't. I do remember telling my husband, Kiffen, and Nancy, the midwife, in the middle of things, "Please let me go home. I'll come back on Thursday and do this. I swear." It was Tuesday, and Nancy said, "You're not going anywhere. The baby is coming today." And he did...November 8, 1988. I even had this idea I might vote on the way home from birth in the Presidential Election. That didn't happen either.


It's hokey, I suppose, to say that books saved me from a childhood of loneliness but they did. I didn't really learn how to be a discriminating reader until I was an exchange student in England at Manchester University. I took a Women in 19th Century Literature tutorial, and discovered Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Sand, George Eliot (we share the same birthday!), Guy de Maupassant, Honore de Balzac's COUSIN BETTE (I felt like Bette because my nickname growing up was "Gertrude Marblecake," and I was known for bursting into tears over nothing and having no sense of humor and for being able to clean a kitchen with gusto). I also discovered Emile Zola, Henry James and so many more in that tiny tutorial in the professor's office where we met on rainy Monday mornings. It always rained in Manchester and I loved it. In bake shops filled with "scones and biccies," clerks, pronounced "clarks" would say to me, "How are you, luv" or "Ta, luv" and I felt loved.

I became friends with a group of British Drama students who had their books all lined up on shelves, and I knew that for the rest of my life I would always make sure to have shelves and shelves of books no matter where I lived. I came home and gave my family required reading lists. Mother read MIDDLEMARCH by the swimming pool that summer, and my sister, who was in 9th grade, attempted PORTRAIT OF A LADY, but her heart wasn't in it as she was preparing to do GODSPELL in the fall. I can't remember which brother refused to read Hardy's RETURN OF THE NATIVE, but one or both of them did. My father was coaching for the Detroit Lions, so I didn't push any novels on him as I knew they would have been refused. 


The first book I read to my son, Flannery, was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and we danced the wild rumpus to that book for years, which became his favorite part. He ate up Roald Dahl books as a boy followed by CS Lewis, Gary Paulsen, Lois Lowry, J.R.R. Tolkein, and now he can't get enough of Raymond Chandler as he drives around Los Angeles thinking of Noir plots and stories. He is 21 and a filmmaker-actor-musician, who got his first job three weeks ago as a PA on a film in pre-production. He sent me a picture of his employment badge and first paycheck.

My daughter, Lucy, loved Laurie Halse Anderson as a young teen, but as a little girl, we read everything from The VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR  to THE STORY OF FERDINAND to SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE to SWAMP ANGEL to BUZZ to THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS to CHRYSANTHEMUM and later Frances Hodgson Burnett, but now Lucy loves Joan Didion, Dave Eggers, and Raymond Carver and so many more. But the love of Joan Didion was due to a cruel English teacher, who informed her in the beginning of 9th grade that she was "No Flannery" when it came to books and reading and intelligence, (she'd been in his class two weeks). I despised him on the spot and wanted to take her out of the class, but Lucy wanted to prove this teacher wrong (and not wreck her sports schedule at school). She did exactly that and along the way fell in love with Joan Didion and is now a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She wants to be a photo-journalist.

Our youngest, Norah, is reading CATCHING FIRE to me, but she won't let me read it at night because she's worried I'll be too sad. She was very unhappy with MOCKINGJAY and isn't sure if I should read it at all. She reads aloud to me when we drive the back roads exploring Alabama together. She has often told me that she prefers fantasy over historical fiction, and her favorite authors include: Diane Wynne Jones, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Garth Nix, Michael Scott, Kristen Miller, Jean Auel, and too many more to name. She has to find a stopping place in a book whenever we arrive somewhere in the car, which may take her anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes, sometimes longer.


I just gave a talk on literacy to the DIVAS of Birmingham, (Developing Initiatives and Values Among Sisters) who were raising money for the UNITED WAY literacy campaign. I told them that I tell kids to be "Story-Catchers" in my writing workshops and to write their stories down or paint them in pictures or simply tell them...I tell young writers to ask questions and listen to the stories and read read read! The DIVAS  gave me a fabulous centerpiece, which now sits on my table next to the Courthouse of Monroeville, Alabama where Harper Lee set another of my most favorite books in the world, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.


As a child, I read in a front yard on Central Avenue every summer in Leavenworth, Kansas visiting my grandmother, Elizabeth, who'd bring me a plate of Swiss steak and cucumber salad to devour along with my library books. I read on the side porch in Washington DC and my other grandmother, GranMary, would let me read my book at the "hot shop" where we'd go for chocolate milkshakes. I read in the backseat of a Buick through thousands of miles across the country to football towns in the South and Midwest with two brothers, a sister, parents, a styrofoam ice chest that NEVER survived the trip, and a drooling black lab named Clancy. I read in trees and attics. I read in the woods and at football games. I read under my desk at school in Sister's Joel's geometry class (I don't recommend it) and late into the night and on the beach and in mountain cabins and on Greyhound buses and in China where Kiffen and I spent our first year of marriage. I read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN aloud to my sister, Keely, on trips to Kansas to visit the grandparents, and Kiffen has read parts of it to me over the years.


At the age of thirteen, I told my cousin, Mary Margaret, that I "lusted for peaches." She looked at me and said, "You read too many books, and by the way, a person can't lust for peaches." But I did, and I know I lusted for books too. In fact, Mother used to find tons of peach seeds in my room because nothing was better than eating a summer peach on a Saturday afternoon and reading a book.

Betty Smith said it best in the opening words of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN:

"Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer."

* * *

Kerry Madden is the author of OFFSIDES (a football novel), WRITING SMARTS (book to spark story ideas in young authors), GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN (the Maggie Valley Trilogy of the Smoky Mountains), and UP CLOSE: HARPER LEE. She's an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lives in Birmingham with her daughter, Norah, and commutes (once in a while) to her dear husband and home in Los Angeles.


Karin Gillespie said...

Yesterday a friend of mine was shocked to learn that I hadn't read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" because it's one of the best books ever.

Today there's your blog post. Clearly the universe is trying to tell me something.

This was great. I always look forward to your posts.

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you, Karin - I think you'll love it, and the movie is beautiful too! Definitely worth seeing! Thanks for all your love and support.


Augusta Scattergood said...

Another amazingly wonderful post that I just love. (And did we share that your son and my daughter were both born on Nov. 8?)
Great quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I too adore.

Thanks for writing this!

River Jordan said...


I love your writing (just now catching up on the blog reading here) and I want you to know I devoured Anna Seton's Green Darkness in High School and then my mother read it. It's still one that will always stay with us. I just love this post - the favorites of family, reading places, and capturing a time by remembering what we were reading!


nreddick said...

I haven't read that and now feel like part of my world is missing. I do lust for peaches, however, and have satisfied that lust by picking them myself these past three years and "putting them up," so I can have some whenever I want. If you don't have any near you, when they are in season this spring, remind me and I'll get you some.

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