I’m sitting down to write this blog after a busy morning of cooking and baking. I have a steaming cup of chai, which is in a special vintage-looking Christmas mug, and a slice of Banana Bread, the first time I’m using a new recipe that I got from my neighbour’s mother. And I have a brownie that one of my book club members brought to the meeting yesterday - yum, yum and yum!
My volunteer book club got together yesterday to discuss the critically acclaimed classic coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. This book tells the story of Francie Nolan and her life experiences from the ages of eleven to seventeen. Set in Brooklyn, the story begins in the summer of 1912, when we first see the tree that struggles, against all odds, to sprout and survive in the tenement district, in boarded-up lots and rubbish heaps. Francie is just eleven, but she and her younger brother Cornelius/Neely have the run of the streets as their mother, Katie, works to keep house and home together, while their father, the handsome and talented but not-so-reliable Johnny Nolan sleeps or goes out with the other singing waiters in the Union. The children are collecting stuff to bring to the junkie, where rags, paper and aluminum are weighed and purchased for a penny or two. This they then turn over to their mother, contributing to the household budget, but not before allowing themselves a treat at the candy store. The story follows Francie as she attends school, learns about poverty and survival, and the pride that keeps her mother from accepting charity, even in the face of near destitution. She encounters many characters, including the local librarian and the various shopkeepers in the area. Her extended family includes her uneducated yet extremely creative Aunt Sissy and her reliable Aunt Evy and Evy's interesting husband Willie. Over the course of the six years that make up this story, Francie faces death and new life, poverty and comfort, and must make decisions that most children today would never have to make at such a young age. This semi-autobiographical novel presents a window into the life of an average girl in Brooklyn before and during WWI, and it was a hit with the book club members. We all agreed that Francie was to be admired for her strength of character and resilience, even in the face of adversity. This strength she clearly got from her mother, Katie, who encouraged her children to rise above their situation and strive for a better life than she has had. We thought that most of the women, particularly the Rommely women, were strong characters, while most of the men were weak or were “found wanting”, but then one member pointed out that there were, in fact, many weak female characters in the book, such as one of Francie’s teachers and the librarian, while there are many strong, or positive, male characters, such as the school custodian, the principal and the Jewish doctor. These strong male and weak female characters were minor characters, but they were important to the development of the story. Sissy was a favourite character, with her “kooky ways of doing things, calling all her partners ‘John’ (and) getting a baby through some pretty creative tactics”. We all marvelled at the ways the women tolerated the weakness of the men, and seemed to be almost attracted to it (one member wondered whether Katie and the neighbours, by putting up with Johnny's alcoholism and irresponsibility, were in fact enabling him in this way of life). We all felt that it was unfair of Katie to favour Neely, but that she did her best to raise both children to be strong individuals, despite her challenges with poverty, an unreliable husband and her ever-changing circumstances. One member pointed out how interesting it was that the neighbours all took care of each other, but did it surreptitiously, such as when the women from the building cleaned the Nolans’ apartment while they were at Johnny’s funeral, then placed the key back under the mat. Another member commented on the duplicity that occurred throughout the story, such as when Johnny and Francie lied about her circumstances to get her into a better school, or when Francie said she was sixteen to get a job, or even when Katie used creative means to meet up with Johnny and steal him from her best friend. While reading this novel, I was reminded of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Both Francie and Barbery's Paloma were afraid of what the future might hold for them, that life may end up having no meaning: Paloma likened her future to swimming around and around in a fishbowl, and Francie was afraid of wasting her life, growing old and becoming disfigured. All in all, it was an interesting discussion about a book that everyone enjoyed, and one that most of the book club members had been meaning to read “someday” - now they can cross that title off their list!
And I finished listening to an audiobook by Paul Doiron, Trespasser. This follow-up to The Poacher’s Son (which I haven’t read) features Maine game warden Michael Bowditch, and opens with the search of a property that has been vandalized by vindictive ATV users. Two large and stately oaks have been cut down on private property, and Mike is called in by the owner to help find out who did this. He is called away to help in a roadside accident - a woman has hit a deer and her car is stranded on the side of the highway. When he arrives at the scene, both the woman and the deer carcass are gone. Then the state trooper arrives and tells Bowditch that this is now his case and he will follow up with a search for the missing woman. Bowditch is uneasy about this arrangement, but he has troubles of his own to worry about, so he heads home to spend time with his girlfriend, who has recently moved back in with him after a separation of several months. When the state trooper fails to conduct a proper search for the missing woman, Bowditch steps in and follows his own hunches, which lead him to discover a grisly murder scene that bears many similarities to a murder committed seven years earlier, a case that was closed with the conviction of local lobsterman Earland Jeffers. As leads present themselves and clues are uncovered, Bowditch conducts his own investigation and must follow the clues as they take him on a hunt for the truth about both the current case and that of the murder committed nearly a decade before. This was the first book by Doiron I’ve listened to, and it was pretty good. The author really immersed this listener in the community and culture of the east coast, both with the wealthy summer residents and the poor local folk. I am definitely interested in checking out his first “Michael Bowditch” novel, as there are many references to that book in this one. It was an engaging thriller that had a realistic setting and an interesting cast of characters, not too fast-paced but still gripping enough to hold this reader’s interest until the satisfying conclusion.
That’s all for now. Have a great day!