Who wrote this book and when?
Betty Smith published this semi-autobiographical work of fiction in 1943.
Has there been a film version?
Yes, and many film enthusiasts say the 1945 film was better than the novel. No way in hades it is.
Who are the main characters?
Frances “Francie” Nolan – a dreamer of a girl growing up in a Brooklyn tenement building in the 1920’s
Johnny Nolan – Francie’s father, an alcoholic whom everyone loves
Katie Nolan – Francie’s mother, the steely woman who is desperate for a better life but is forced to focus on just holding her family together
Cornelius “Neeley” Nolan – Francie’s younger brother
Aunt Sissy – Katie’s promiscuous and bigamist sister
Aunt Evy – Katie’s other sister, who is married to Willie Flittman, a milk man
Officer McShane – the cop who works the beat in which the Nolans live
What’s it about?
It is the story of the Nolan family: Johnny, Katie, Francie, Neeley and how they fight to save pennies just to get through their everyday struggles. Francie is a pragmatic who is determined to read through the whole library alphabetically. Neeley is a tough little mother’s boy who hates school, loves baseball, and tolerates his sister. Katie is the glue of the family who wants her children to be somebody, but is forced to face the reality of their situation. And Johnny is the songbird dreamer, who inspires and loves everyone but himself. And throughout all, we see life. Life fighting to make its way through the cracks and to burst through the obstacles whether they are cold, or hunger, cement, poverty, sterility, or the law – just like the tree growing outside the Nolan’s fire escape which shelters Francie as she reads and eats small bits of peppermint candy.
Why is this book a classic?
It is heralded as one of the best novels in American literature and one of the most masterful depictions of American life.
Do you recommend I read this book?
Yes. A thousand times over. I read it almost once a month.
Why did this book make your list?
I first read it one day when I was bored and had found it on my mother’s shelf. And I fell in love with it. I have since worn out one copy of the book, lost another, and bought a third.
Has it won any awards?
No. Other than being one of the most influential books in many people’s lives.
It was originally written as a memoir by the author, but her editor recommended she turn it into a fictional novel.
“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel.” – p69
“It takes a lot of doing to die.” -p220
“And now came the time of Francie’s Gethsemane.” – p350
“And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely’s mysticism, her tale-telling, her great belief in everything and her compassion for the weak ones. She had a lot of her grandfather Rommely’s cruel will. She had some of her Aunt Evy’s talent for mimicking, some of Ruthie Nolan’s possessiveness. She had Aunt Sissy’s love for life and her love for children. She had Johnny’s sentimentality without his good looks. She had all of Katie’s soft ways and only half of the invisible steel of Katie. She was made up of all these good and these bad things. She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk.” – p72
“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘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.'” – p421
This is my favorite book – almost of all time. The only books which have given this one a run for its money are “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, and “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis. I think it is one of the most wonderful character driven novels ever written, as well as the most honest piece of work I have come across. Francie, Katie, Johnny, and Neeley are so realistic, so heart wrenching in their honesty and their love and lust for life that your heart breaks for them with every change and challenge. This book is unique in that it doesn’t simply examine a crisis which the Nolan family experiences and overcomes, but details the everyday struggles they face in a tenement building or two or three in Brooklyn in the 1920’s. You hear the thoughts of every character, not just Francie or Katie. You learn why they react so differently to different situations. You relate to them. Nothing – not a word – is superfluous. Not a single detail would I ever cut from this book. People criticize this book for being untouching, stereotypical happy – ending stuff, but you could never call this book anything near that having read it. Not all the endings are happy; it isn’t just a growing up tale, but an examination and honest portrayal of life.