by Stephen Parrish
The story opens in 1912 Brooklyn, where 11-year-old Francie Nolan grows up amid relentless poverty in a family that includes her younger brother, her scrubwoman mother, and her alcoholic father. Hope and love keep them going. Francie survives and eventually thrives in her environment, much as the hardscrabble Tree of Heaven does, from which the novel gets its title. The following scene takes place near the end of the story, as Francie bids farewell to old haunts before departing for college.
After lunch, she went around to the library to turn in her books for the last time. The librarian stamped her card and shoved it back to her without, as was usual, looking up.
“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?” asked Francie.
“She is eleven.”
The librarian brought up a book from under the desk. Francie saw the title: If I Were King.
“I don’t really want to take it out,” said Francie, “and I’m not eleven years old.”
The librarian looked up at Francie for the first time.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” said Francie, “and you never looked at me till now.”
“There are so many children,” said the librarian fretfully. “I can’t be looking at each one of them. Anything else?”
“I just want to say about that brown bowl … what it has meant to me … the flower always in it.”
The librarian looked at the brown bowl. There was a spray of pink wild aster in it. Francie had an idea that the librarian was seeing the brown bowl for the first time, also.
“Oh, that! The janitor puts the flowers in. Or somebody. Anything else?” she asked impatiently.
“I’m turning in my card.” Francie pushed the wrinkled dog-eared card covered with stamped dates across the desk. The librarian picked it up and was about to tear it into two, when Francie took it back from her.
“I guess I’ll keep it after all,” she said.
Why do we love this book? There’s nothing special about the writing; it’s simple and direct, even awkward sometimes. Smith overworks the dialogue tags (“said fretfully,” “asked impatiently”). One reason we love the story is because we can identify with the protagonist. Even as a boy, when I read this novel I identified with Francie, especially because she was an avid reader. There’s at least a little bit of Francie in all of us.
Another reason is nostalgia. In the scene above, Francie returns to one of her childhood haunts and completes a circle. By repeating details from earlier in the story (the recommended title, the brown bowl) the author tugs at our heartstrings.
We encounter this device in many books and movies; the mere repetition of a simple event, even just a word or phrase, at a key moment near the end, can bring tears to the eyes of readers and movie-goers. My earliest experience with this was in Mila 18, as Andre’s sister Deborah died in his arms. Their mother had sung them a song when they were young: “What is the best Sehora? My baby will learn the Torah…” Now as she dies she asks Andre, “Sing Momma’s song.” Perhaps a better known example occurs in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” when Idgie Threadgoode retells a fable, of a flock of ducks carrying away a frozen lake, at the request of her dying friend.
Writers take note: readers love to cry. One of the easiest ways to turn the spigot on is to repeat an early event or anecdote at an especially poignant moment. The first time it’s amusing. The second time it presses a completely different button.
What do you think?
Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.
Bonus stuff, from Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (which deserved more than its one-season run):
Harriet: I got a laugh at the table-read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?
Matt: You asked for the laugh.
Harriet: What did I do at the table-read?
Matt: You asked for the butter.