Through the Reading Glasses August 2020

By Janet Moore

In 1900, Mary Francis Nolan was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, at home, just as her cousins and parents and siblings were. The main character in Betty Smith’s remarkable novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, Francie might perhaps have crossed unknowing paths with my grandmother Rose Ferneding, born in 1898 in Flatbush, two Brooklyn communities and Prospect Park distant. Although the Nolans were Irish and the Fernedings German, their neighborhoods each contained that melting pot mixture of immigration so common in late 19th and early 20th century New York.

The novel is a cultural history as well as the story of Francie’s growing up and her family’s struggles and joys. Her mother was a scrubwoman, her father a singing waiter, and Francie and Neely contributed income with odd jobs. But when Johnny Nolan died, the two siblings went out to work, at 14 and 13, and the reader is introduced to the availability of jobs: teletyping, errands running in brokerage houses, news clipping services, that could lift children out of their parents’ poverty. And poverty it was. Francie lovingly describes the “umbrella tree”, the view from the roof, the variety of neighbors (in ethnicity and temperament), but the tenement was cold and bread usually made up for the lack of meat and vegetables.

Yet, the family perseveres, with Katie Nolan’s voice constantly intoning, “education, education, education.” Neely is sent off to high school while Francie continues to work full time. However, American entrance into World War I is approaching, and her new friend Ben Blake guides her into summer college courses, the New York Regents exam, and eventual admission into the University of Michigan — all without high school attendance. What a story!  Everyone in the Book Group loved it, too. Join us next time on Zoom; we’re reading “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas. Google the title and see if it’s the book for you, and maybe we’ll see you on August 19 — just give us a shout first so we can include you!