I made a friend in junior high who I got to visit with again just a few weeks ago. There have been more than four decades between visits and yet her impact on my life has been powerful. She was there for me during a rough time back then and offered me wisdom, courage and, most significantly, hope.
That she existed in the pages of one of the favorite books of my whole life diminishes her steadfastness as a friend not a bit, rather, strengthens it. I only read the novel once in eighth grade. When I went back recently to get reacquainted, I admit I was a little fearful that time and memory had warped her out of shape, but it hadn't. My recollection of Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was even more accurate than I could have believed. Betty Smith’s character, who has hovered in my imagination throughout my life, was even more true to herself than I could have wished. I didn't value Francie any less as an adult than I had as a young teen, but I did view the adults in her life differently.
Her mother was not the hard, uncompassionate figure I had judged her then--far from it. My perspective as a grandmother and a mother who tried to instill wisdom in my own children, and who now watches those children do the same for their own, was delighted to read this conversation between Francie's mother and grandmother. As a homeschooling mother who now writes about literature, this passage fascinated me more now than it could possibly have when I was thirteen. The dialogue below is between baby Francie’s mother who is seeking advice from her own mother, an Austrian immigrant.
“I am strong. I will work hard, Mother, but I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother? What must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”
”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.”
“I will read,” promised Katy. “What is a good book?”
”There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book. All that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing, but I heard the lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.
”Is Shakespeare a book of the German?”
”It is of the English. I so heard the lord of the land tell his son who was setting out for the University of Heidelberg, long ago.
"And what is the other great book?”
And there, my friends, I will pick up next week. I do, however, suggest that only your mature young women read this book, but do thoroughly recommend it as a valuable novel to fill the heart and mind of anyone. It well deserves its place in twentieth century classic literature.
For the joy of reading,