A book that has stayed with me through the years is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, an author who would have been my mother’s contemporary. I too grew up in New York, but in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, just a few years after the childhood of Francie Nolan, heroine of Betty Smith’s novel. My childhood and adolescent years paralleled Francie’s coming of age. But my affluent East Side neighborhood and sheltered private schooling kept me riveted on Francie’s life, so diametrically opposed to mine.
We meet the Nolans, Francie’s early-20-thCentury urban family, in their Brooklyn tenement when Francie is eleven: her mother, a scrubwoman, her father, an alcoholic singing waiter. Francie and her brother Neely, have sold their day’s collection of junk: rags, metal, paper and scrap, and given their mother Katie, the few pennies that they have earned. Katie feeds her family the dinner she has concocted based on stale bread.
Katie is a second-generation member of Austrian immigrants who hope to rise above poverty through their four children. Since her parents never learned to speak English, Katie’s eldest sister never went to school and her younger sisters did only for a few years. Katie’s mother tells her to be sure that her own children learn to speak English.
Katie’s ambition is for Francie and her brother Neely to complete college, or at least high school. To enhance their language skills Katie has provided them with the Bible, and the complete works of Shakespeare. The children study these books backwards and forwards.
When their father dies, only Neely can afford high school. With her eighth grade diploma determined Francie works her way through progressively challenging jobs and at 17 is accepted by the University of Michigan when book ends.
Recently reading the book again, I was struck by the parallels with my own parents’ immigration experience. Hans Pederson, my Danish father, attended a laborers’ school twice a week from the ages of 7-14. He emigrated to Seattle at 20 then survived a year in the Yukon as a prospector during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The skills he mastered launched him as one of Seattle’s largest pioneer contractors until the Depression mothballed building and other commerce.
My mother, born just a few years after author Betty Smith, was the granddaughter of a Ukrainian horse groomer who crossed North America on the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1898. Speaking Ukrainian her family remained close as they homesteaded their Alberta farms. My mother, a brave member of the third generation was the fourth of seven children. A pioneer as well, she was the first in her family who dared to attend school since the Canadian government in 1916 offered schooling only to English-speaking children.
It often takes determined immigrants three generations to find their place in a new society