Playing Checkers in Brooklyn: Hope and Resilience in Betty Smith’s Wartime Fiction

Betty Smith Tomorrow Will Be Better cover image

Loving Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the Nolan family was Irish? That was a reason I could talk about—because, when I was a girl, being Irish was no longer a shameful thing. But poverty was shameful, and there I was, growing up in a single-parent household dependent on Mother’s Allowance payments. So when I talked about reading the book, I talked about the more acceptable parts of the story, but it was the Nolan family’s struggle to make ends meet—coupled with the related family tensions and the father’s frequent absences—that secured this novel as a true favourite.

Economic hardship is a hot topic in non-fiction now. Consider: Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019), Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane (2019), Jodie Adams Kirshner’s Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises (2019) and Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020).

With HarperCollins’ November 2020 reprint of Betty Smith’s second novel, Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948), readers are reminded how infrequently working-class readers have seen their lives represented in fiction. More than seven decades after the launch of Betty Smith’s writing career, her focus on low-wage and no-wage families in fiction still stands out. Even more remarkable, contemporary journalism echoes some of the story elements of Betty Smith’s historical novels. Many aspects of financial hardship in the 20th century are consistent with financial hardship in the 21st century. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) opens on a Saturday morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1912. Eleven-year-old Francie Nolan and her brother, Neeley, haul their weekly accumulation of goods to the junk shop. Their mother’s position of janitress of their tenement building assures them a steady supply of paper, rags and deposit bottles. (In real life, Betty Smith’s mother, Catherine, cleaned three tenement buildings in lieu of paying rent.)

Walking to the shop, Francie and Neeley drag their burlap bag up Manhattan Avenue to Scholes Street, while other children, returning home with their coins and empty bags, holler “Rag picker! Rag picker!”; on their return trip, they are ones hollering. On Saturday mornings, not-having swiftly transforms into having. 

There’s a junk shop in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind-Family (1951) too, but it’s across the East River, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the children’s father owns the shop. The shops themselves were curiosities, with piles of goods worth pennies, but the way that every penny mattered to the Nolans echoed the reality of my own family’s finances.

Where Betty Smith succeeds is her use of detail. Young Francie is capable of cutting the bottom off a discarded wash-boiler with a can opener and pounding it flat, recognizing the good fortune in copper’s being worth ten cents per pound. That Saturday, the children’s scrounging yields sixteen cents plus a “pinching penny”; eight cents are secured in their apartment’s tin-can bank, nailed to the closet floor, and they split the other half, with Francie keeping her bonus for standing still while Carney pinches her cheek. 

William Strunk Jr observes, in The Elements of Style: “The greatest writers…are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.” At nine years old, I knew that my mother owed $250 rent each month, so when the Scholastic Book school catalogues came around, I circled all the interesting titles but ultimately garnered a couple of the 95¢ sale selections: details mattered.

Betty Smith incorporates many biographical elements to enrich A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The disparaging comments from the fictionalized nurse who assists with Francie’s vaccination, for instance, are drawn from the author’s girlhood; condemnation for being poor was unshakable. In addition, the on-again-off-again relationships in women’s lives reflect the experiences of her family; hopes for dependable partners were dashed and opportunities to improve living conditions eroded.

As quickly as Francie and Neeley transform from being called “rag-pickers” to wielding insults, a family’s income could dissipate; a death, an illness, an injury, or an eviction could upend entire lives. Without savings and security, a temporary disadvantage could become permanent. In her biography of the author, Valerie Raleigh Yow writes: “In later years, Betty Smith’s granddaughter would remember that her mother, Mary, said that the two sisters [Lizzie and Jean] lived a checkerboard life, that they never knew what spot they would land on next.” 

A landing spot is of equal concern for Stephanie Land in her 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. She writes: “Nothing was permanent. Every day I walked on a rug that could be yanked out from under me at any moment.” Land is in her later twenties when she struggles to exist below the poverty line in temporary spaces; most of Betty Smith’s characters know no other way of life. 

In Tomorrow Will Be Better, Margy works full-time at seventeen years old, and passes her wages to her mother. Every cent matters here, too: “Flo gave Margy two dollars out of her envelope. Out of this Margy paid carfare to and from work and bought the daily bologna sandwich and cup of coffee which was the routine lunch of most of her coworkers. That left fifty cents a week for everything else….”

Margy dreams of a fashionable haircut, but she can’t afford frequent appointments or tips. Instead, she sports a simple bob and sculpts a narrow, fishhook curl on each cheek. She washes her Georgette blouse nightly and, when it discolours, she dyes it: first yellow, then pink, and gradually darkening the colour until it’s navy blue, when “all the girls assured her that they honestly thought it was a new blouse.” 

Margy’s parents, Flo and Henry, argue incessantly about money; they’ve inherited economic insecurity and unhappiness. For Henry, money has always been a stressor: “I was pushed out when I was thirteen. Get a job, my old man said. Get any kind a job so it brings in a few dollars a week.” As a boy he dreamed of being a policeman, fireman or railroad engineer, but now he dreams of a better dinner on his plate, and Flo has no patience with his frustration.

“I’m stuck! And I’m stuck till I die,” Henry rages. And Flo fights back: “Maybe I could cook fancier if you’d give me more money.” The emotional and psychological tensions exacerbated by poverty also affect neighbours beyond the immediate family circle because of the crowded conditions in the tenement buildings; tirades and arguments are broadcast and stress heightened. 

Only in her third novel, Maggie-Now (1958), is there more discussion about how characters choose to spend rather than simply how they must allocate their money. But even that story begins with Patsy, who left Ireland late-19th-century Brooklyn: “Patsy was not extravagant and his needs were few enough, but there was always something to buy. Aside from fifteen cents a week for clay pipes and tobacco, he had to pay ten cents twice a week for a shave at the barber’s. He couldn’t afford to buy a straight razor and honing strap. A haircut once a month cost twenty cents. A nickel went into the collection plate at Mass each Sunday. […] But he did manage to save a dollar a week.”

It takes years for events to unfold in Maggie-Now, for Maggie-Now to be born and grow into managing the household. (Her name’s derived from the phrase instructing her to do this or that: “Maggie, now….”) She keeps the household money in a teapot with a broken spout (an improvement on the Nolan family’s tin can) and every dollar counts, but whenever there are only a few cents left, her father adds a couple of bills to the coffers. 

Even for Maggie-Now though, food is the stuff of dreams, if not in the same way it was for the young Nolans, who were often hungry. “Like many people with limited amounts of money to spend, Maggie-Now thoroughly enjoyed the spending of it. She loved to shop, especially for food.”

Betty Smith’s fourth and final novel, Joy in the Morning (1963) also contains autobiographical elements, based on her experiences as a young, married woman in Michigan. Neither Annie’s nor Carl’s family approved of their marriage and they are now living far from Brooklyn, while Carl finishes his law degree. “But how could they possibly get along cooped up in one room? They ought to have a larger place—at least two rooms. That would mean higher rent, though, and where would the money come from?”

Here, as in other Betty Smith novels, salaries are discussed in detail with perks factored in, prices at neighbourhood shops are compared, and unexpected expenditures/opportunities are itemized: difficult choices are weighed daily. 

There is no security in a “checkerboard life”, whether the concerns are large or small. “They [Annie and Carl] had faced the big emergencies that could work havoc with their small income…. But, fortunately, these big dramatic emergencies did not materialize. It was the small nickel and dime things that came up day by day that plagued them.”

Her realism touched readers: Betty Smith’s debut novel was immediately popular upon publication in 1943, feeding American readers’ desire for a hopeful story. It sold three million copies within a year and, as biographer Yow describes, it transformed Betty Smith financially too: the day before the book was published, she was a woman with a home she rented for $40 per month and a debt of $300; on publication day, she became a celebrity with a $27,000 cheque in her handbag. 

Thereupon, Betty Smith could have written different stories, but she was compelled to share the kind of stories that young Francie Nolan was advised not to write in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by her grade-school English teacher, Miss Gardner. Chastised for her creative writing assignment, Francie resists: “You said we could choose our own subjects.” Miss Gardner is unmoved: “But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

Another aspect of Francie’s experience judged as unsuitable for fiction is her father’s addiction—his alcoholism. Miss Gardner says: “Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness.”

If Natalie Savage Carlson had been Miss Gardner’s student, she’d have gotten part marks for her 1958 children’s novel The Family under the Bridge. It does expose what Miss Gardner would have considered an “ugly” side of Paris, but it successfully links poverty with laziness. 

Armand’s story, of life under a Paris bridge, is the only other book I recall from girlhood, about not having enough money. Unlike his friend, Camille, who works as a department-store Santa, Armand chooses not to work. When he discovers three children taking shelter under his favourite bridge, he is reluctant to engage, and their mother, when she returns, is critical: “I have a steady job at the laundry, and that is more than he can say.” 

The children dream of having a home, and as the story unfolds, Armand adopts that dream: “I’m going to get a steady job. Your mama and I ought to make enough between us to rent that room in Clichy….” But Carlson explains that Armand isn’t strong enough to help: “Then, frightened by his own brave words, he slumped to the ground and leaned back weakly against the wall.”

In Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020), Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn quote Professor David Elwood of Harvard, who believes that “the first step in tackling poverty must be to challenge the idea that the major problem is personal failure.” He says: “It all starts with changing the narrative.” Kristof and WuDunn elaborate: if “you believe poverty is a choice, then you try to stigmatize and punish it, rather than focusing on interventions….”

Because Natalie Savage Carlson’s book is a children’s story, there’s no punishment; Armand overcomes his weakness, becomes “a workingman of Paris”, and he is redeemed. Together, he and Madame Calcet move into a walled-and-roofed home in exchange for property maintenance (echoing Betty Smith’s mother’s agreement in real life, and Katie Nolan’s agreement in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to work as caretakers). The moralizing percolates, but as a girl I registered the happy ending and the children’s reward. 

I overlooked the judgement that Stephanie Land also describes in her 21st-century memoir: “Being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation—the crime being a lack of means to survive.” Land freely shares the details of her financial struggles; she counts her dollars and recounts the bureaucratic complications of social service and government assistance programs. At every turn, she feels judged: by strangers (who observe her food stamps in stores, for instance, and sneer “You’re welcome”) and family (whose disapproval outweighs compassion). 

When Land laments the inconsistent support she receives from her daughter’s father, there are echoes of Francie Nolan’s parents, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s Katie and Johnny Nolan. “I can’t count on Johnny,” Katie despairs. “I’ll always have to look after him. Oh, God, don’t send me any more children or I won’t be able to look after Johnny….” As time passes, Katie Nolan’s impatience—with Johnny’s unreliability—increases. 

It’s similar to the 21st-century experience of one young mother in Jennifer M. Silva’s We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (2020). Danielle got pregnant in high school, despite her mother’s history of a shotgun wedding. After graduation, when Danielle moved in with her boyfriend, things went well at first; but later, “Chris was in and out of jail, racking up DUIs, and could not hold down a job: He was taking the money and buying drugs with it.” 

Just as Francie’s experience of the junk shop differs from her brother’s though, with the “pinching penny”, women experience poverty uniquely. Like Danielle, unplanned pregnancies derail women’s plans for the future in Betty Smith’s fiction. In Tomorrow Will Be Better, Frankie warns Margy; “People like us just can’t afford to have children. If I had a better job, more pay, it would be different.” 

An interview conducted by Kristof and WuDann underscores this lament: “‘There are just too many kids for one person,’ Molly told us worriedly.” And Stephanie Land’s memoir revolves around this point: “Then I found out I was pregnant.” Having her baby means “choosing to stay in Port Townsend” and “delaying my dreams of becoming a writer” and “the person I expected myself to be… who would move on, become someone great.”

When Land discloses her pregnancy to her parents, she discovers that her parents faced the same situation years before. Many of the mothers and aunts in Betty Smith’s novels are also concerned that this pattern will repeat (naming them would be spoilery, because often the younger women aren’t told about this history until they, themselves, get pregnant, later in these novels’ development). 

Stephanie Land’s situation unfolds more than a hundred years after Katie has children with Johnny Nolan, and Katie’s situation was drawn from the author’s 19th-century family history. So when Stephanie Land wonders “how normal it was for housecleaners to be displaced mothers, stuck in between the domestic work they did at home and seeking jobs that could pay a decent wage”, her observation is not unique to time or place. That job—“nothing but a last resort”—is often the only one available to a young mother. 

This is echoed in Danielle’s experience over time. She does have more children, but she emphasizes her capacity to cope with her family’s challenges. Silva describes her as having admiration for people who “stare reality in the face, acknowledge its brutality, and nonetheless persevere” because that “resonates deeply with her own experiences.” 

Even in Maggie-Now, the novel with the least economic strife, working-class characters demonstrate resilience in their everyday lives: “They came together, they loved and they married. In innocence, and never dreaming how courageous they were, they started a new life together and a new generation of their own.” Even here, Smith recasts her characters: their struggles don’t make them weak or lazy, but courageous. 

Betty Smith’s heroines recognize the challenges, confront them, and dare to imagine another future. When Margy watches the men returning home from their day-shifts, in Tomorrow Will Be Better, and she vows that her life will be different: “But they had had to fight poverty and they were licked from the start.” Her awareness coupled with her determination creates the possibility of hope: “Watching them, Margy thought: ‘I’ll never get like that.’”

It’s this acknowledgment of the struggle that secured my respect for Betty Smith’s stories. I started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was the same age as Francie: eleven. Every time I reread, I was a little older. As I grew up, my love for happy endings persisted, but around me, I realized that more people were tired and bitter, angry and sad, than were happy. I wanted to understand why, when everyone preferred a happy ending, there were so many other kinds of endings in real life. I longed for explanations that reflected the complications I was beginning to recognize. 

In her final novel, Betty Smith acknowledges the stratification of the experiences of the working poor through Annie’s hopefulness and wider experience of the world. Carl is frustrated with “this being poor, the way we are”, unsure how to move on, seeing no pending relief, but Annie disagrees: “But it’s not the tenement kind of poor. That’s being poor for nothing. But we’re poor for something. You’ll get a law degree out of it, and I’m getting so much out of it right now by being allowed to go to my class.”

Even though we ate boxed mac-and-cheese several times a week for dinner, I always had dinner as a girl. And often served with one of the pickled or preserved vegetables grown in my grandmother’s garden. My grandmother’s children went to university and after several years of hardship, in which single-motherhood eclipsed other possibilities, my mother returned to the workforce. I was “not the tenement kind of poor” either. 

Something else I share with Annie is her love of reading, books and libraries. The most vital of the transformational powers in Betty Smith’s fiction is intellectual curiosity, exhibited by Annie and Francie, and their impassioned search for story. This stems from the author’s affection for the Leonard Street library in Brooklyn, eight blocks from her home: a “warm, comfortable, and spacious” place, where she could “choose a book from the shelves that lined the room, sit at a long wooden table, and read by the lamps’ golden light.” Smith transferred her own goal—to read her way through this Carnegie library—to Francie, who also climbed onto the fire escape to “sit on the black metal slats” and “read in this private space.” 

Not all low-wage and no-wage families have access to books. Kristof and WuDann, for instance, observe that the “Knapp home had guns but not books; the children were taught how to tinker with cars but not to read.” For Francie, however, “the world was hers for the reading.” And Annie is at home in Michigan when she discovers the campus library, with “the same grand smell the one-room library back there in Brooklyn had had: a mixture of ink, paste, leather, apples and wax; all dominated by a faint moss smell.”

Both Francie and Annie have a passion for story-telling as well as reading. But even Margy “read the novels of her day” —like Black Oxen and This Side of Paradise—and Maggie-Now read Laddie, as soon as it came into the library. And even though Francie and Annie are the most bookish of Betty Smith’s heroines, it’s Margy in Tomorrow Will Be Better, who questions how different the characters in her reading are, compared with the people she knows in real life. Margy debates whether the reality that she sees depicted in books is purely fantastical, because the families she sees on the page bear no relationship to families in her experience. 

When Francie overthrows Miss Gardner’s writing advice, when Margy critiques the literature of the day: these are small, revolutionary acts. These characters elbow their way onto the page; they create a space for ordinary people who count their pennies. 

In a broader sense, this decision echoes David Elwood’s advice in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020); the authors list actions readers can take once they have finished reading, and one of those is to change the narrative surrounding poverty. “Break taboos!” they write. “America tends to be at its worst in dealing with policy issues that are hard to talk about…if we can’t discuss these issues, we can never make progress on them.”

Miss Gardner instructs Francie Nolan is to sustain the silence, sustain the belief that people choose poverty. In contrast, Valerie Raleigh Yow concludes her biography of Betty Smith with her advice to writers: “First: Be understanding always. Keep the understanding you have and add on to it.” She writes: “There is a reason for the way every person is.”

There are reasons behind the checkerboard mode of existence that Betty Smith depicts in her novels and working to understand is also a factor in Kristof and WuDunn’s analysis: “Wiser policy requires our country to possess a richer understanding of why people fall behind, a deeper comprehension of how many children grow up with the odds stacked against them.”

When I was a girl, I didn’t always feel as though the odds were stacked against me; but even though the public library provided a refuge, there weren’t that many stories to read about a girl like me. A girl who lived in an apartment, loved to read, dreamed of writing books, and knew how to count her pennies. A girl with many advantages compared to young Francie Nolan, including shelves of books and games at home, with a library across the street. 

When Annie visits the campus library in Joy in the Morning, she locates a familiar story: “She had first read the book when she was twelve. Before that, she had read fairy tales and novels about well-to-do Victorian families and minor classics available in the little neighborhood library.” David Copperfield  “made a grand impact on her” because it was the “first realistic book about a city that she’d read up to that time.” As a young adult, she borrows the book to reread. 

For me, that book was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I recognized in its early-20th-century Brooklyn reality, my late-20th-century life in a southern Ontario village. I still have my Harper&Row paperback and later inherited the hardcover that my great-aunt read when she was a working-class wife and mother. I also still have the checkerboard I played on as a girl, too, with the margarine tub of red and black markers. 

What I didn’t know, when I learned to play, is that Checkers has existed in various forms for millennia; a board dating to 3000 B.C. was unearthed in Ur, boards were stored in Egyptian burial chambers, and both Plato and Homer mention played this strategy game. For as long as there have been games, there have been winners and losers. For as long as I’ve been reading, it’s been easier to find books about the winners. 

Against a binary backdrop, stories that challenge the status quo are particularly valuable. Essential, even. Here we learn to transform checkerboard squares into safer landing spaces, to conceive of new trajectories, and to imagine—and create—different kinds of endings.


Marcie McCauley is a writer and reviewer living in Toronto.

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