Many readers have a particular book that they read early in life and revisit frequently and for me that book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This book resonated with me as a child, and continues to do so, because of the strength of the main character, Francie Nolan. I found echoes of Francie in Rory Dawn Hendrix, the protagonist of Girlchild, a recently published novel by Tupelo Hassman. Both of these coming-of-age novels depict resourceful heroines transcending rough circumstances through strength of character and a love of reading, with a little help from libraries along the way.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1943. It tells the story of Francie Nolan, who is 11 years old when the novel opens in 1912. Francie lives in a tenement in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which at the time was populated with a vibrant mix of immigrants from a variety of cultures, living in crowded conditions and often grueling poverty. The author grew up in that neighborhood herself, and paints a vivid picture of the Brooklyn she experienced. Francie lives with her younger brother, her hard-working mother, and her father, a gentle and charming man who is an alcoholic. Francie and her brother spend their days on the rough streets of Brooklyn, hunting for trash they can trade in for pennies to help with the family expenses. Francie’s one escape from the stress and harsh realities of her life is reading. She spends her free time alone on her fire escape with a stack of library books, and makes a resolution to read every book in her small local library in alphabetical order. Books are an escape for Francie in more ways than one, as the education she obtains from reading on her own later enables her to attend college despite the fact that she was not able to attend high school.
In Girlchild, Rory Dawn Hendrix lives with her mother and grandmother in Calle de las Flores, a desperately poor trailer park on the outskirts of Reno. Her mother works nights at The Truck Stop and Rory is often left in the care various neighbors, some of whom are not as trustworthy as her mother assumes. At school, Rory and the other kids from “the Calle” are shunned and demeaned by other students, and often neglected by teachers. Rory, however, has grown up with a mother who loves books and she takes advantage of the books that line their trailer walls. She reads constantly, and one of her favorites is The Girl Scout Handbook. While Rory isn’t an official Girl Scout, she adapts the advice outlined in the book to her own circumstances. She also finds solace with the school librarian, who is the one person at school who sees her potential and encourages her beyond the low expectations the school has set for her as just another dirty kid from the Calle. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter, Hassman’s prose is wry and creative, and shines with the humor that is often a necessity in hard times. Like Francie, Rory Dawn’s ability to imagine a life beyond the poverty that surrounds her is the first step to making her way to something better.
It’s easy to see why Francie’s story resonated with me so much as a child, and why Rory Dawn’s does today. I was a bookish kid who read indiscriminately and made many trips to and from my local public library. While I didn’t experience the crushing poverty depicted in these stories, I grew up in a working-class family with six children, so there was a certain amount of chaos at home and money was tight. Books helped me broaden my view of the world beyond my small Missouri town and to carve out a quiet place of my own. Both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Girlchild are touching stories of girls forging paths for themselves in an often uncaring world. They are testaments to imagination and will, and to the power that books and libraries have to open up the world for their readers.