My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Summary (adapted from Goodreads)
A poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
How did I go so many years as a book devourerer and not read this one until now? The forward by Anna Quidlen describes my thoughts and feelings about the book so well. It’s not one that you can easily sum up if asked “what is it about?” As Quidlen puts it, “It is a story about what it means to be human.”
The lives of the Nolans are full of hardship, poverty, hunger, uncertainty. Yet somehow the book is not depressing. I found myself feeling such gratitude for all I have and the things my children and I don’t have to face because we have money for food, clothes, and fun every month. But there was that small part of me that also admired the character of the family, of the children, that the developed because of their struggles. Francie and Neeley express that when thinking about their baby sister who will not have to collect junk to help the family get by. Lucky her they say, but she also won’t have the fun times they had either. And they feel sorry that she will miss out on that.
Certainly social issues are presented in this book, but I loved that they were not the main theme. They were there simply because it presented the scene for how these characters dealt with it. There is no preaching in the book’s pages about how poverty should or shouldn’t be dealt with. There is no cheering for “republicanism” or “democratism” while condemning the other side. It’s just showing that horrible things that are somewhat out of our control don’t have to make life worthless or unhappy for any of us. I loved Johnny Nolan’s simple explanation of what makes America a free country. He marvels at all the fancy carriages in the rich part of Brooklyn and at how anyone can ride in one of them provided they have the money. Francie asks how that’s different from the old countries to which Johnny replies that in the old countries even if you had enough money not everyone could ride in a carriage. Francie wonders wouldn’t it be better if everyone could ride in the carriages for free? And Johnny says that’s socialism “and we don’t want any of that here.”
Whether we struggle with poverty and alcoholism, or with depression, or with greed we can see ourselves in the Nolans and their reactions to the things that happen to them. Best of all, we see how they take control of what they can and work really hard so that things stop happening to them, and they start making things happen. But the Nolans also know that their survival is not only a result of their hard work. They recognize God’s hand in their lives and miracles occur.
This was a story that left me proud of those who came before me and worked so hard to make it possible for me to have the opportunities I have now. And I hope I can create an even richer future for my children. As Katie Nolan observes, the key is not money; it’s education. My children are warm in the winter and well-fed. They have toys to play with and a safe yard to run amok in and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I also hope that like Francie they can look at others with compassion and understanding. I hope they can value and appreciate what they have rather than judge those who have more or less. I hope they can recognize the value of hard-work and loyalty especially among family. I hope they will see their positions in life as a result of their own hard work and the support of so many around them. And then I hope they will help to lift and build others up.
The best way I can teach that is by example. Hopefully my children will learn from my good example and also my screw ups just as the Rommelys and Nolans did. I am grateful of the reminder from these characters of how precious life is. How happiness is made up in the small things. How hard work, independence, and selflessness are their own reward. And how it’s also fun to feel rich sometimes by throwing a little money around, but really the richness comes because of the memories created and the character that is built.
Age Recommendation: Experienced readers with a broader life experience will get the most from this book. I recommend for 17 and older.
Appropriateness: The lives of these characters are tough; reading this book means facing alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, social injustice, and bullying to name a few. But on the flip side you experience triumph, courage, and hope. There is also swearing in the book frequently. It’s not for the faint of heart but for me, it’s totally worth the journey.
Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book or are interested in it you may also enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.