Lois Lowry's latest book is called Son.
I certainly knew, by the time I turned 13 in 1950, that there were so-called "dirty books" out there. I had sneaked a peek at a popular English novel my mother was reading (one character's breasts were described as "ample" and "melon-shaped"), and there was a gritty street-gang book about Brooklyn that made the rounds among my peers, a book in which certain page numbers had become iconic, though I doubt if any of us read the book from start to finish for plot.
Aside from the pleasure of giggling with my friends over the racy passages, neither book interested me much. Restoration England was too busy and over-populated for my unformed taste, and Brooklyn street gangs were far removed from my adolescent concerns.
But Brooklyn itself interested me, because I had lived there as a young child — had gone to kindergarten in Brooklyn, in fact — and had fond memories of my playmates in our Bay Ridge neighborhood. That is why A Tree Grows in Brooklyn caught my eye in the library, why I picked it up, opened the book to enter the world of a girl named Francie Nolan, and found my life with literature changed.
It wasn't because I identified with the bookish, idealistic main character. I did, of course. But the books of my childhood had been filled with those spunky, literate girls: Jo March, for one. Or Anne Shirley. So Francie Nolan felt familiar and kindred, as they had.
It was her world that was new to me and caught me unaware. Francie's crowded tenement neighborhood was pulsating with sex. I was startled, at first, by Aunt Sissy: her unapologetic lifestyle (I think there were several husbands, with no widowhood or divorce in between), by the description of her bright red garter, by the voluminous breasts released from a pinching corset and falling forward, rosy and massive. None of that exuberant flesh in Concord or Avonlea! And it was cheerful — none of the wink-wink references. It was sex I was reading about — no question — but with a difference. It was part of life — not of my buttoned-up life, but of the noisy immigrant life made real in the pages of Betty Smith's novel — and it was sometimes a part that caused heartbreak or chaos. But it wasn't "dirty." I would not have known the word to put to it at 13; but it was earthy.
And it was real. I read of the teenage girls forced from school by the necessity of earning a living, of their hasty hallway embraces with loutish boys, the early pregnancies that condemned them to bad marriages and a repeat of the stifled lives of their mothers. I read of the cruelty: the shouts of "Whore!" directed at the young unmarried girl who dared to take her baby for a walk on Francie's street. The brutality: the lurking pedophile who grabs 13-year-old Francie in a dark hallway; and maternal passion: her mother, Katie, with a gun behind her apron, who shoots him and saves her daughter.
It was raw and real and, to me at 13, often shocking. But I never confided in my friends with a giggle that I had found a new dirty book — it wasn't. It was a book about life that revealed more to me than my earlier loved books ever had. I treasured it, and Francie, and my new knowledge of her world, the same world of mingled flesh and feelings I would one day enter.
PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.
When I was a child, the tangy, wet-mud smell of spring meant that it was almost time to pack up for my family's annual trip to La Pointe, Wis., a tiny town on a tiny island smack dab in Lake Superior. That's where I spent my summer vacations.
At least my body did.
My heart, however, was in Brooklyn, N.Y. Each year, from the time I was 11 until I was 17, my first stop in LaPointe was the library, a whitewashed clapboard building with a spiral staircase winding up into a steeple. At the top, in the fiction nook, I'd pull out a volume bound in library green with a gilt title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I may have been the only person who ever checked that book out, but I did so, religiously, every June.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, an odd, bookish little girl determined to become a writer — just as I was — except she was growing up in tenement squalor in the early part of the last century. But it's about so much more than that. It's about thriving despite injustice that's never rectified, meanness that's never punished, and love that goes sour. It's about Francie's parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. It's about wanting better for your children even as your every action ensures they won't get it. And it's about place, the warp and woof of pre-World War I Brooklyn depicted so vividly I could feel it from Chebomnicon Bay.
Unlike the reassuring books of early childhood, this one confirmed what, as a nearly teenaged girl, I'd come to suspect: Life's not fair, but you can survive it anyway. Francie saw that in the Tree of Heaven, from which the book takes it's title: It sprouts improbably in the cracked cement of the slums, thriving and growing lush despite utter neglect.
The book also bluntly wrestles with the peril and promise of a girl's sexuality. In one of those literary touchstone moments — which, along with Mary Ingall's blindness and Anne Frank's death, make a young reader realize that things that aren't supposed to happen sometimes do — Francie is nearly raped. Later, she watches as the neighborhood gossips fling stones at a teenager who dares to parade her illegitimate baby in public. Then, at age 16, Francie falls in love with a man she barely knows, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her, then leaves her. Francie asks her mother, Katie, whether she should have slept with him. Surprisingly, Katie says there are two truths, the truth of a mother, who would tell her daughter absolutely not, and the truth of a woman who would say...maybe, because she'd never love this way again.
I hadn't noticed that scene until my most recent rereading, after becoming a mother myself. Now it's the one I can't shake. I wonder: Was Katie right? What would I have said to Francie? What would I say to my own daughter? And when is it time to let a girl see the complex woman that lies behind the veil of maternal authority? Sixteen seems so young. But it was older then.
That's why I return again and again to this book. It's full of such moments, of people who live in the space between what is right and what is true, between ideals and necessity. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ends with Francie leaving her home, but who knows what she'll find in the foreign land of Ann Arbor, Mich.? Can she flourish outside of Brooklyn? Will she marry her new, dependable boyfriend for whom she feels no passion?
As she readies herself to go out, she spies a little girl across the courtyard, sitting on a fire escape as she herself once did, a book in her lap, peeping through the spiky leaves of the Tree of Heaven. She waves at the child, and calls, "Hello Francie."
And little girls like me, in libraries in small towns and big cities all over the world, wave back.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.