Monday, February 15, 2016

A Second Visit to Brooklyn, Part 2

Last week, I interrupted the fascinating advice of an uneducated grandmother to her minimally educated daughter from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One page of Shakespeare per day, is her counsel.

Here is the second of the two essential books recommended for the mother to read to Francie, who is a baby at the time of this dialogue.

“And what is the other great book?"

"It is the Bible the Protestant people read."

"We have our own Bible—the Catholic Bible."

Mary looked around and whispered furtively, "It is not fitting for a good Catholic to say so, but I believe that the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth, and beyond it. A much-loved Protestant friend once read some of her Bible to me, and I have found it as I have said. That is the book, and the book of Shakespeare, and every day you must read a page of each to your child, even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great, knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

Again, I pause in this fictional conversation for some observations. There is some wisdom for any parent today: 1) read to your child every day; 2) read things beyond even your own intellectual ability; 3) read small portions of the best—The Word of God and William Shakespeare; 4) don’t forget the purpose, aside from familiarity with language, is to open a child’s mind to the knowledge that the world extends beyond his own familiar one, and is discovered in literature.

Francie will do exactly that, but I don’t want to spoil your own discovery of it if you have not read the book before. The grandmother does not comprehend the content in these two books herself, but her instincts are on the mark. Story is vital to understanding yourself and the world around you—so crucial, she includes more than written story:

“And you must tell the child the legends I have told you, as my mother told them to me, and her mother to her. You must tell the fairytales of the old country. You must tell those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people, fairies, elves, dwarves and such. . .Oh, and you must tell of the Kris Kringle, and the child must believe until the age of six."

"Mother! I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be telling the child foolish lies."

Mary spoke sharply, "You do not know whether there are not ghosts on the earth or angels in heaven!"

"I know that there is no Santa Claus."

"Yet, you must teach the child that these things are so."

"Why, when I myself do not believe?"

"Because," said Mary Romely simply, "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 not of this world. . ."

"The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed."

"That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth oneself. 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--when life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment that will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good, too. It makes a person rich in character."

Mary may have been poor and uneducated, but she imparted truths mothers today would do well to consider. It is not just children who need to learn truth from fiction.

For the joy of reading,



  1. I have never read this book, Liz! I really enjoyed reading these posts about your connection with it. Thanks!

    1. Amy,

      Maybe one day you will enjoy the book, but I mostly shared to give an example of the great advice we can encounter even in fiction. The mind of the author communicates its thoughts and wisdom through the story and we gain knowledge in an enjoyable way.


  2. Okay, I need to re-read this book. It's been 20 years since I last forayed through it. What riches in this one conversation! What wisdom! Thank you, Liz, for sharing Mary's insights with me.

    1. Kimberlee,

      We read books at different ages for different reasons and receive different ideas. That is what is marvelous about reading good books.


  3. I also read this in junior high, and was just thinking of rereading it; thanks for the extra push!