March is Women's History Month, and this month's Books-To-Movies' blog post is showcasing two very different but similar stories: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Both stories feature a young female protagonist that is trying to find their way in the world.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set around 1912 Brooklyn, New York. It is a loosely based autobiography tale of Betty Smith's life. Instead of the main character being of German-descent like Smith (However, some biographies have Smith as both Irish and German because she took her Irish stepfather's last name). Smith changes the character to Francie Nolan, a young Irish girl. Francie Nolan is impoverished but is determined to get a better education and become a writer.
The Color Purple, a fictional story, is set in 1930s Georgia, and it follows a young African American girl, Celie, from childhood to adulthood. When Celie is a young girl, she is forced into an arranged marriage. Celie suffers physical, emotional, and verbal abuse from her husband, and she is determined to find her self-worth.
Both Francie Nolan, Celie, and their authors Betty Smith and Alice Walker are at the forefront of the Women's Right Movement in the 20th Century.
Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in the 1940s, taking what she probably heard or witnessed of the Women's Suffrage Movement and laced her story with strong female characters. Not only is Francie a strong character but her mother, Katie Nolan, and her Aunt Sissy, who married several times (like Betty Smith herself). In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith's female characters take ownership of their power in various ways. In fact, all the female characters are dominant, and the male characters are the subservient ones.
Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple in the early 1980s. She transported the reader to Georgia in the 1930s. At this time, men still were the dominant figure, but Alice Walker implemented female characters against this grain: Nettie, Celie's younger sister who went to school and taught Celie how to read. Nettie went with the local Pastor and his wife in Africa to do Missionary work; Sofia, Celie's daughter-in-law, fought back against oppression and racism; and Sug Avery, a blues singer, taught Celie how to love herself. Throughout the story, Celie becomes empowered by these other female characters.
Reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, at first, maybe a hard book to delve into because of Betty Smith's writing style of her time. She wrote very descriptively, and it could seem like a long read. However, it is worth finishing because of all the details that Betty Smith provides. Also, the characters are complex and will hold your interest. I would recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for young ladies in middle school.
As for reading The Color Purple, it is more simplistic. Alice Walker tells her story through letters (epistolary). The letters are easily readable and move the story along. However, the content of the book deals with sensitive subjects like rape and lesbianism. I would recommend The Color Purple for young ladies of the upper high school age because of these sensitive subjects.
Both movies stayed true to the books, making it easy to follow the storylines, especially for Visual learners and reluctant readers. They will connect the stories and the characters with the wonderful actors, costumes, sets, and cinematography.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was filmed in black and white, but the set is rich with the scenery of Brooklyn of 1912. The Color Purple, in contrast, was filmed in color. The vibrant colors of the field and even some of the costumes' dull colors stand out to give you a sense of how rural Georgia was in the 1930s.
I believe all girls should have a chance to discover A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Color Purple and add them to their bookshelves and movie collections.
Betty Smith (1896-1972)
Betty Smith was born Elizabeth Wehmer on December 15, 1896, the exact same birth date five years earlier than her fictional heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan. Smith grew up in the poor section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn as the daughter of German immigrants. She left school at age 14 with an eighth-grade education to work in factories. She married George H.E. Smith and followed him to the Midwest where he pursued law at the University of Michigan. She raised two daughters, Mary and Nancy before she completed her education. She eventually studied at the University of Michigan where she pursued journalism, drama, writing, and literature. She excelled in this area, winning several awards, including the prestigious Avery Hopkins Award for work in drama. She also attended Yale Drama School for playwriting.
Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, to Willie Lee and Minnie Tallulah (Grant) Walker. Like many of Walker's fictional characters, she was the daughter of a sharecropper (a farmer who rents his land), and the youngest of eight children. At age eight, Walker was accidentally injured by a BB gunshot to her eye by her brother. Her partial blindness caused her to withdraw from normal childhood activities and begin writing poetry to ease her loneliness. She found that writing demanded peace and quiet, but these were difficult things to come by when ten people lived in four rooms. She spent a great deal of time working outdoors sitting under a tree.
Walker attended segregated (separated by race) schools which would be described as inferior by current standards, yet she recalled that she had terrific teachers who encouraged her to believe the world she was reaching for actually existed. Although Walker grew up in a poor environment, she was supported by her community and by the knowledge that she could choose her own identity. Moreover, Walker insisted that her mother granted her "permission" to be a writer and gave her the social, spiritual, and moral substance for her stories.
Upon graduating from high school, Walker secured a scholarship to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she got involved in the growing Civil Rights movement, a movement which called for equal rights among all races. In 1963, Walker received another scholarship and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she completed her studies and graduated in 1965 with a bachelor's degree. While at Sarah Lawrence, she spent her junior year in Africa as an exchange student. After graduation she worked with a voter registration drive in Georgia and the Head Start program (a program to educate poorer children) in Jackson, Mississippi.
To learn more about Alice Walker: Alice Walker | The Official Website for American Novelist & Poet (alicewalkersgarden.com)