Be they harsh and harrowing or nostalgic and romantic (and sometimes both), this handful of the classic as well as some more recent works of fiction to come from or be about New York’s most famous borough includes stories most concerned, at their core, with characters poor, unhappy or both. Interest, unsurprisingly, lies where there is struggle. As Tolstoy said, “Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
Like Pearl S. Buck’s classic A Good Earth
, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
is one of those timeless works that new generations of readers come to and love. It didn’t do badly in its day either, selling 300,000 copies in its first six weeks. Betty Smith’s beautifully rendered story, rich in the kind of traditional narrative pleasures you would associate with Steinbeck and maybe Dickens, is about an Irish family who have just moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th
century. Like so many immigrant stories, it is a story about struggle, about overcoming poverty and about finding your place in a new world. Perhaps this sounds old hat, but there is nothing tired when a story is filled this richly with characters like the wonderful protagonist, Francie, who works so hard to overcome her circumstances, a girl destined to become a writer. What’s so powerful is the degree to which we not only sympathize with Francie’s hard-working mother, who must basically run the household alone, but that we actually don’t hate and are in fact much intrigued, if totally infuriated by, Francie’s drunken but enchanting father, Johnny, the singing waiter who would never become the artist Francie seems destined to become.