Some books are like first dates – you flip through the pages and decide whether to toss them or give them a quick read, but either way, when all is said and done, they are easily forgotten. Others you read over and over again until the feeling of their pages on your fingertips becomes as familiar as an old lover. And if you are very lucky, you will find one or two that change you forever.
I am a writer today because Francie Nolan made me believe it was possible.
I read A Tree Grow in Brooklyn for the first time when I was eleven, the same age as Francie when her story begins. From that first telling scene as she sits on her fire escape watching the girl across the street prepare for her evening out, I found myself looking at the world through Francie’s eyes. I shared her thoughts. I knew her as well… perhaps even better… than I knew myself, so that in that ethereal space where adolescent memories and imagination collide, we came of age together – Francie and I.
From outward appearances, it would seem that Francie and I had little in common. She was the impoverished daughter of a drunken Irish singer and a steely washerwoman in Williamsburg, Brooklyn more than a century past, while I was raised three generations and a continent’s width away; the daughter of a teetotaling elementary school teacher and a registered nurse.
But below the surface, Francie and I shared enough: Our love of words and books. Our tenacity and perseverance. Our loneliness, our sleepless nights, our restless thoughts. Our indulgent fathers whom we adored more than anyone. Our equally difficult, strained relationships with our mothers, both of whom had a son they loved if not more, at least better, than us.
In the decades since that first reading, I’ve read Betty Smith’s poignant, semi-autobiographical tale at least twenty times, each at a different turn in my road, and always it is a message of indomitable hope that rings out above all others for me, from introduction to final line. It is with that hope – encapsulated in my favorite quote – that I close today:
Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
~ Francie Nolan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
What book changed you?