‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ honored at seminal Leonard Street branch
Paint must still have been fresh when a 12-year-old Betty Smith encountered the treasure of infinite language contained within the Brooklyn Public Library’s Leonard Street branch.
The library hosted a very special unveiling Wednesday as elected officials, staff, book lovers and the family of Smith, author of the classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” gathered to dedicate a plaque in the her honor in the place where she spent countless hours exploring her growing love of reading and literature.
Her family was poor. It’s doubtful they could afford to buy books. But that didn’t matter, because young Smith had a hunger to learn — and a library card. She took what the library had to offer, ultimately transforming it into one of America’s canonical pieces of literature.
Marking the 75th anniversary of her best-known and loved book’s publication, the time had come to commemorate Smith’s romance with both literature and the community’s efforts to bring it to the widest possible audience.
“Brooklyn was, to Betty Smith, the place of possibilities,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “What does Betty Smith tell us? That in between all of the brick and mortar, there were families living their lives, facing all of the complexities of life, education, work and just doing their best with what they had.”
On hand for the dedication was Nancy Pfeiffer, Smith’s 96-year-old daughter, who made the trip from Connecticut accompanied by her son Eric Pfeiffer, daughter Elizabeth Aviano and grandson Derek Aviano.
“I stand in my mother’s shoes,” Pfeiffer said. “I try to think of what she would say.”
Rejected by several publishers before editors at HarperCollins took it on, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” follows the experience of Francie Nolan, 12 years old, as she and her family suffer grinding poverty in Williamsburg, a neighborhood then filled with heavy industry.
Francie admires her father Johnny’s joie de vivre and romantic nature, despite his alcoholism making him a poor provider. This is a contrast to her mother Katie’s hard-nosed realism. Katie supports the family by cleaning houses.
The novel’s central metaphor is the tree of life that thrives outside Francie’s window in spite of its hardscrabble, urban setting.
The book was immediately successful. Published in an Armed Forces edition, it became the most requested title for GIs stationed abroad. A 1945 film version directed by Elia Kazan won several Academy Awards and is regarded as a film classic.
“The characters have so much soul, just like Brooklyn,” said Amy Lyon, who illustrated the cover for the 75th anniversary edition.
Published the year before Brooklyn Navy Yard launched its quintessential achievement, the Iowa-class battleship USS Missouri, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” put the borough firmly into America’s literary canon just a year or two before its descent into a precipitous post-war decline.
How fitting, then, after the better part of a century during which circumstances, dreams and hard work have brought Brooklyn back to, and perhaps beyond, its wartime pinnacle, Smith’s achievement is honored in the very library that for she and her protagonist was an invaluable resource.
“Although my mother never returned to Brooklyn,” Pfeiffer told the audience, “she always carried Brooklyn and Williamsburg within her. It was an integral part of who she was.”
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