Hello everybody and welcome to our very first TBT Best Seller Edition! We’re going to jump around each week to keep you all on your toes for what’s to come, but our first throwback is going to be centered around the beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published in 1943, so let’s take a look at what was going on in the world at the time. At this point, the United States was about halfway through its tour in World War II, having entered after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It wouldn’t be until May 8th, 1945 when Victory in Europe Day would occur, as well as Victory over Japan on August 15th of the same year. Therefore, the United States was at the peak of its home front efforts, including the planting of Victory Gardens, the publication of Rosie the Riveter, and the airing of Fireside Chats.
Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the draft had been in place since 1940, which required all men from twenty-one years old to thirty six years old to register. It began as a one-year requirement, but was extended once the United States entered the war. The amount of time owed was pushed to the duration of the war and the age bracket was extended on both ends, ranging from eighteen years old to thirty seven years old. At the beginning of the draft, people of color were not included and were overlooked due to “racist assumptions about their abilities and the viability of a mixed-race military,” (according to history.com). However, this changed in 1943, when a quota was imposed. Also, according to history.com, by the end of the war, about 10 million men had served after about 34 million had registered in the draft.
During such a challenging time, it only made sense that a book as encouraging as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would gain such popularity overnight (literally, Betty Smith did not see it coming when her doorman rang to alert her of all the photographers that were waiting outside). Not only this, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also had a special edition produced throughout the war, so it could be read on the front lines. It was small, it was sturdy, it was easy to carry, and it was just the right message that the men away from home needed. The Council on Books in Wartime, formed of publishers, libraries, and book sellers, picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to become part of its portfolio of Armed Services Editions. The portfolio included over 1,300 books ranging from fiction to nonfiction, novels to plays to poetry. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, however, was also one of only about 100 titles that would come back for a reprint as an Armed Services Edition.
Written by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is largely based upon her own life. Smith and her protagonist have many commonalities between them, including their birth dates (but not birth year), where they grew up, their aspirations, and more. The novel follows a girl named Francie Nolan from the age of eleven, through to when she leaves for college. A section of Book II also focuses on Francie’s parents, Katie and Johnny, detailing the development of their relationship from meeting to marriage and beyond. The novel depicts the family dealing with hardship, such as alcoholism, living in poverty, public shaming, and death. The Tree of Heaven serves as a major symbol within the novel, as well as giving the novel its name. The tree continues to grow in Francie’s neighborhood, despite not having any of the things required to nourish a tree (sunlight, water, or soil), and therefore represents hope for more character than one.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn brilliantly captures the unique situation of living in Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century. Times were changing, priorities shifting, norms advancing, and morals loosening. With that being said, Betty Smith paints the ultimate picture of perseverance and, without revealing too much, is sure to leave her readers feeling satisfied come the end of the novel. A huge success from the day after its publication and for many years to come, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more than earned its place as our very first TBT Best Seller Edition. As we continue to make our way through our own trying times, it is especially worth the read now. Nearly 80 years after its original publication, it has not been so relevant since it sat in the pockets of our soldiers on the frontline of World War II.