Tag Archives: betty smith

“I feel joyful, in a strange way”

"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly ... survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it."

I read a passage that made me weep last night. Just for a moment, with my mouth stretched open in a silent sob. Luckily I was reading to myself and not N, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I had come to the part when the main character Francie Nolan is born, and her mother Katie asks her own mother for advice on how to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

“What must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

Mary, a working-class, illiterate Austrian immigrant, tells her, “The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day. I know this is the secret.”

That’s good. But that’s not the part that made me cry. Mary goes on to say that Katie must teach Francie the legends of the old country, and tell of “those not of this earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such,” as well as ghosts and Kris Kringle. When Katie protests, and asks why she should teach her child “foolish lies,” Mary answers:

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things that are not of this world. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

N is obsessed with belief, and is always asking me do I believe in god, do I believe in Santa, do I believe in fairies, and so on. I tell her I believe in the connections between people; the power of kindness; the necessity of stories that help us see from different perspectives. It doesn’t wash. Yes or no, Mom, do you believe in God/fairies/Santa? I can’t say yes. But “no” doesn’t seem honest either. I do believe.  But what I believe in is difficult to put into words – almost as if it is not meant to be put into words. And yet I know it needs to be taught and shared; it feels like my duty to teach and share it, just as it is my duty to clothe and feed her. And read with her.

Grandpa Stan ready to ski in 1941, 100-ish years after Dickens penned his Christmas tale, ten years before Alastair Sim played Scrooge, and two years before Betty Smith wrote about the Tree of Heaven.

Two years ago I posted about how much we love the 1951 A Christmas Carol film starring Alastair Sim. This year N started asking for the movie in early November, so we’ve watched it many times already, despite the fact that in my husband’s family, it’s a Christmas Eve tradition. He tells of his old Grandpa Stan, farmhand, pre-hippy-hippy, and WW1 vet, roaring with laughter through these viewings, and shedding a tear or two as well.

The film is black and white, full of Victorian English, but this movie completely captivates the great granddaughter Stan  never knew. She can even recite passages aloud, and giggles when Scrooge suggests Marley’s ghost may be nothing more than “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” I have to wonder — did Stan love that part too?

Marley's Ghost, illustrated by John Leech, 1843

Last year we read aloud snippets of the book as well, just to give her a taste of Charles Dickens, but this year she asked if we could read the whole thing. “Let’s make it a goal,” she said, “to finish it before Christmas Eve.” And last night we achieved our goal. I thought it would be hard-going, but it wasn’t at all. Whereas in the Harry Potter series we saved the movie until we had read the book, this time the reverse worked well for us. N knew the story well enough that she was able to follow the old-fashioned language easily. And I knew she was following, because she often pointed out parts that hadn’t been included in the movie, such as when — much to her delight! — Scrooge tries to smother the brightly glowing first spirit in a cone-shaped extinguisher cap. He seizes the thing, presses it down upon the little spirit with all his force, but the light still streams from it in an unbroken flood, and finally Scrooge gives up, flings himself into bed, and falls into a deep sleep.

N adores Scrooge’s meanness, his bitter, pigheadedness; his horror at seeing himself for what he’s truly become; and finally his utter joy in making amends — in giving . A Grade 2 schoolmate of N’s recently wrote about what happens when he gives: “I feel joyful, in a strange way.” So too, Ebenezer Scrooge. Upon discovering his chance to better himself, he laughs and cries in the same breath. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A Merry Christmas to everybody! A happy new year to all the world! … Whoop!”

Was this joy and generosity what resonated so well with N? I wondered about that this morning, as I accompanied her class to sing carols at a mission. The kids brought hats and mitts to leave behind for any who needed them, and they sang their hearts out to the staff and the visitors alike. I glanced around and saw people smiling. Some sang along, and it helped the kids sing louder. I made a note to tell N a little more about Dickens sometime soon.

Charles Dickens, painted in 1842 by Francis Alexander, not long before A Christmas Carol was published

In 1843, when A Christmas Carol was published, he was in his early thirties, and already carving out  a body of work that focused on the poor and the oppressed. When Dickens was a boy, his bankrupt father was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison, just around the corner from where my own family lived in “the Borough.” The rest of the family (minus Charles, who went to work in a factory) was held in prison too, and it is often written that these events scarred him deeply, and led him to his own form of social commentary, in which the lowest classes took the starring roles.

I know these are the things that appeal to my husband about Dickens — along with the humour, and the vivid descriptions. A while back when he was sick for a couple of days, he laid in our room reading Oliver Twist, and I could hear him chuckling away to himself. He often said, during our Harry Potter readings, “I bet JK Rowling likes Dickens.” But I was curious to know what N’s reasons were — at least, how she would articulate them. So when we closed the book last night after reaching our goal, I said to her, “Why do you like this story so much?” and waited for her brilliant answer.

She gave me a slightly incredulous look, glanced at her like-minded dad, and turned back to me with a shrug.

“Because it’s good.”

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