As the state is set, we know very quickly that this will not be the story of a well-to-do family poised to be among the very rich in the coming decade of the robber barons and the Roaring 20’s. We will be spending our time, like most Americans of that time, “getting by”.
Life is hard for Katie and Johnny Nolan immigrants who have married. Soon a child, Francie is born, and she becomes the main character in the book, and it is through her that we view what life was life on the raw edges.
And make no mistake, life is very hard for the Nolans, with Johnny working periodically as a singing waiter, but spending most of his earnings on drink, which Katie works as a janitoress to make ends meet. The children, Francie and then Neely collect scrap each week to be sold for a few pennies. Most of the time they go to bed hungry.
The Tree of Heaven is metaphor for the gritty determination to live and survive that existed in that neighborhood and motivates the Nolan’s, especially Katie and Francie. Both are intent on getting something more of out life than they presently have. Katie reads to the children every night alternating between Shakespeare and the Bible, Francie writes stories, and reads voraciously, dreaming of college.
Many hardships await the family, but true to all great novels, or at least most, a good ending is comes forth. Our women are older and wiser. They have suffered greatly, they have learned great lessons, they are undefeated. There is a realism in the sorrows of loves lost yet never forgotten, and an acceptance that life is simply like that. Much attention is given to recognizing milestones in life, and savoring the feelings, good or bad, that accompany them. In this raw emotion, life is truly lived.
The men in the story are in some ways but shadows. They go through the motions of ordinary men. They love and work and laugh and bemoan their fates, yet one senses that the author never quite understood men in general, neither those in her own life from which she could have drawn, or others whom she saw from afar.
It seems clear that Ms. Smith wrote from her own life and that this tale is largely autobiographical. It is said that one should write from what one knows, and she clearly knew her subject.
I found the book delightful in every way. It is not a book to make you stop in mid-sentence to contemplate great ideas and truths, but it is a most satisfying read. After finishing, I came away thinking that I understood the life of first and second generation immigrants in the US. That is an achievement surely, for one of a novel’s jobs is surely to inform us of a new place and new kinds of people. In that, this one succeeds very well indeed.
This is summer reading at it’s best. It’s a classic and it is quite clear why it is. I enjoyed it and I imagine millions of others have and will.
Best couple of lines from the book:
A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion in his heart for those has left behind him in the cruel up climb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way.
The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? ‘To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.’