21. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
Author: Betty Smith
Areas Featured: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Like the Lower East Side, Williamsburg has seen transformed from an ethnic enclave to a hipster haven, but it would be an affront to the intimate optimism of this novel to dwell on that. This book isn't meant as a historical document (though you can read it as such); instead, it's a sketch of fleeting moments of happiness amongst hardship.
Ultimately, it's about the triumph of the human spirit. Sure, we now know this theme and the image of a tree growing out of concrete as clichés of the highest order, but clichés come about because they state ideas simply and in a way that resonates universally. It isn't the grand themes that touch us in books like this, but small moments rendered carefully: Francie's joy smelling flowers, or her afternoons spent people watching from her fire escape take. These scenes take the many small steps towards conveying Smith's themes. They do the heavy lifting that allow for metaphors, or platitudes, to succeed. —BG