What do salt breezes, palm trees, sand outside the door, and the Santa Ana winds have to do with turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn? Not much—only my introduction to Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a defining moment in my life.
(This is a revised post from 2014 and contains affiliate links from which I may receive a small commission at no extra expense for you.)
I’ve never resonated with a character as much as I did with Francie Nolan. She was a bookworm—like me. She romanticized life—like me. But she also, yes like me, was pragmatic. I realize that pragmatic and romantic don’t usually mix well, but that’s the beauty of humanity. We don’t always make sense.
Somewhere in my twelfth year, Mom showed up in my room with a book. She just handed it to me and said, “It was my favorite book when I was a kid.” Mom knew how to make you want to read something by stating something about it, making it available, and dropping the subject.
As a kid, I devoured books in the space of just a couple of hours.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was no different. I don’t think it took more than three or four hours to get through it, but I did something different with that one. I immediately read it again and with an eye to one particular scene.
When I say a “defining moment”, I’m not joking. I probably rushed past less compelling places, but I distinctly remember slowing as I read about Francie and her father walking to the school she’d decided would make her life perfect.
Then the scene appeared—the scene that changed my life.
I’ve read it countless times since. Francie and a packed classroom of other poor, hungry children watch as the teacher holds up a tiny pumpkin pie—I always imagined it the size of a Banquet Pot Pie—and offers it to the class. No one was willing to admit they wanted it. Those tenement kids had pride, I tell ya.
Just as the teacher started to drop it into the trashcan, Francie jerked her hand up, asking for it. The other kids snickered, feeling superior in their ability not to take a handout, but Francie’s solution was to explain that she wanted it for someone else.
And she promptly devoured it on the way home.
Monday morning, the teacher asked about how the people liked it. And Francie concocted a story about twin girls who had been on the verge of death by starvation until they had that little pie. The teacher listened and pulled a “Mom” on Francie. She simply said, “That’s an awfully little pie to save two lives.”
Of course, Francie confessed it all. The poor girl was convinced she’d get a sound spanking—or worse, a letter home. But that teacher said something that still whispers in my heart when I’m writing. She said,
“Francie, a lot of people would think these stories that you’re making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened, but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.”
It’s interesting how a defining moment in my life was also one in hers.
That day, I discovered that I wanted to be a writer (not why I wanted to write… that I share HERE. No, this was THAT I wanted to write). Finally, I had a solution for what I hated about life. I hated the truth. It was never how I thought it should be. I hated lies even more. What’s a girl to do? That teacher knew.