Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a Mystery

This month my library book club read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Many of us had read the book as a girl. Smith's novel of a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early years of the 20th c. is based on her own experience. I had wanted to reread this book after reading When Books Went to War and learning it was one of the most popular books among WWII soldiers.

As a teenager, I felt kinship with Francie because of her love of books, her vivid imagination, and her dream of becoming a writer.

The story takes place between 1914 to 1918. Francie's grandparents were immigrants. Her father Johnny was a charming alcoholic, a singing waiter. Her mother Katie was hard-working and frugal, determined her children would get an education and achieve the American Dream.

When pregnant with Francie, Katie's mother instructed her on the importance of books in the house. She insisted that a copy of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible be secured, and a page from each read to the child daily, along with fairy tales from the old country and stories of Kris Kringle.
"Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies."
"Yet you must teach the child that these things are."
"Why? When I, myself, do not believe?"
"Because, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe...Then when the world becomes too ugly to live in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination."
Francie spent a summer "stitching" on a "square of goods for a penny. It was the size of a lady's handkerchief and had a design outlined on it: a sitting Newfoundland dog with his tongue lolling out. Another penny bought a small reel of red embroidery cotton and two cents went for a pair of small hoops. Francie's grandmother taught her how to work the running stitches." Smith continues, "You were supposed to stitch a hundred of so of these squares and then sew them together to make a bedspread."
Penny Square Redwork pattern of Newfoundland dog
on my Presidents Quilt
School taught Francie about class prejudice. She realized that the clean, well-dressed children were given preference. "She learned of the class system of a great Democracy."

When the students are asked to identify their ethnic background, Francie insists she is American. The teacher pushes Francie who finally, in exasperation cries out that her parents were born in Brooklyn.

"Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read!" Books opens the world to Francie. "She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood." Francie vows to read a book a day for as long as she lived.

Francie's imagination brought trouble when she spun stories; her teacher had to instruct her on the difference between a lie and a story. Francie was aware that she "did not report things truthfully, but gave them color, excitement and dramatic twists." She saw that trait in her mother and wondered if imagination "colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it" instead of trying to change things for the better.

When Francie writes stories for school accurately reflecting her life the teacher admonishes Francie. The teacher explains, "poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exists. But one doesn't write about them." Francie asks, "What does one write about?" And she is told to delve into her imagination and find beauty. "But those stories are the truth!" Francie explains about her work.

Because Francie has pretended to live in another part of Brooklyn to attend a better school her teacher has no idea of the reality of Francie's life. The teacher accuses Francie's stories of being sordid, and after looking the word up in the dictionary Francie bristles with anger. Francie tries to write according to her teacher's wishes, but getting an A for pretty stories based on lies was repulsive to her.

Francie's father dies, leaving her pregnant mother, who worked as a janitor, the sole support of the family. The description of Katie, hugely pregnant, on her hands and knees to scrub floors disturbs me. Francie and her brother, both recent grammar school graduates, proudly work to support the family.

Katie decides that Neely will go to high school in the fall and Francie continue working to support them. Francie excels in every job but watches her hope for education die. Eventually, she takes college-level classes without credit, marveling that her grandparents could not read and here she was in college.

I enjoyed rereading this book on so many levels. Although the novel is episodic and disjointed at points, I was compelled to keep reading. Many of the characters are 'stock' types, and yet Francie and her family elicited my emotional involvement. Our book club members remarked on the disturbing racial stereotypes.

It is amazing how much the world has changed in 100 years! Automobiles, eclectic lights, bobbed hair, voting rights for women, all came in during Francie's girlhood. It is also disturbing how little the world has changed in 100 years: Immigrants struggling to adjust to their new life, class prejudice and xenophobia, the challenge of obtaining an education, the struggle between honesty and integrity and acceptance continues.


My copy of the book is the seventeenth edition and has a note, "this book is complete and unabridged in contents and is manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper, indicating it was produced during World War II.

There is a nameplate for Norma M. Farrell and written in ink the name Norma Schantz, 711 Ditman, Brooklyn 18, NY.
Add caption
So, of course, I had to search for Norma on

First I found her on Find A Grace Index. Norma Marie Schanz was born September 4, 1905, and died January 16, 1990, in Clearwater, FL. Norma was married to George Jacob Schanz, born March 21, 1907, and died September 23, 1963. They are buried at the Long Island National Cemetery in East Farmingdale, NY. George was a veteran whose service started May 6, 1943. He served as a Technician Fifth Grade in the Army.

Norma's father was Joseph E. Farrell, born in Chicago in 1872 and died in 1943. Her mother was Mary Leu, born in Ohio in 1879 and died in 1955. Joseph's parents were William, born 1822 in Ireland and died in 1902, and Annabell Roche, born in 1821 and died in 1874. Mary Leu's parents were Gottlieb Leu and Nanette Kander.

The census records show that Norma lived with her parents on a fruit farm near Kalamazoo. She appears on the 1910 and 1920 census as a girl. A 1919 Kalamazoo Rural Directory shows James and Marie living with children Annbelle, John, William, Norma, Ermond, Majoe and Uriel. James was a farmer and truck grower living in Oshtemo, located southwest of Kalamazoo. On the 1930 census, Norma appears working as a stenographer.

On August 2, 1930, Norma married Edward C. Rynbrand of Kalamazoo. Norma was a stenographer and Edward a shop clerk. Norma divorced Edward on May 10, 1935, for reasons of extreme and repeated cruelty. Edward then married Frances Hays.

In 1940 Norma appears (under her maiden name) living at home with her parents, along with a sibling and three nieces and nephews. She was a stenographer.

Norma and George Schanz were married September 18, 1945, in Kalamazoo, MI when Norma was 40 years old.

Georg Schanz's parents were Mary (or Marie) Weigele and Jacob Schanz, married April 20, 1901, in Richmond, NY.  George was born in 1905.

The 1910 census shows the Schanz family living on Broad Street in Richmond, NY where Jacob and Marie ran a bakery. The family appears on the 1915 Richmond, NYS Census with Jacob was a baker. His son George Jacob went by the name Jacob. They also had a daughter, Katy (Katherine).

In 1930 George lived with his mother Marie at 711 Ditman Ave. George worked as a chauffeur for a beverage company. Their property value was $9000.

The question is--how did Norma and George meet? In 1940 Norma was in Kalamazoo, and in 1945 she was married to George. George was from New York City and in the armed services. It's a mystery.

I loved how this book, which Norma received before her marriage to George, ended up in Brooklyn during Norma's early marriage.

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