What to Read Next (No. 243): Life's Journeys
Happy Friday, readers!
Whether it’s something obvious (like a polar expedition) or less well-defined (like growing up), life is often marked in our memory by the journeys we take.
In today’s edition, I cover two very different books that are both about great journeys: Betty Smith’s beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) and Julian Sancton’s new shiver-inducing Madhouse at the End of the Earth (2021). These books are far less about the ultimate destination — adulthood and Antarctica, respectively — and far more about the process of getting there.
Let’s jump in.
As always, I’d love to hear what you’re reading and enjoying lately:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
“Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry . . . have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere — be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
One genre that’ll almost always hook me is the coming-of-age story, or to use the cool German word, bildungsroman, which combines the words for “education” and “novel.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic and indispensable example of this genre, which I just recently read for the first time.
The coming-of-age tale is a type of story that deals with its main character’s youthful, formative years, especially in regards to mental, emotional, and spiritual growth. It’s generally the case that the scales of childhood fall away and both the joys and disappointments of adulthood emerge — the character begins to figure out what it means to be a grown-up in a complex world.
For me, it’s a story arc that never gets old. I’m in my mid-thirties though; why do I still gravitate to the likes of Harry Potter, The Giver, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other Young Adult (or at least Young Adult Adjacent) titles?
After a surprising amount of thought, here’s where I ended up: My initial impulse was to say that I’m just trying to re-capture the carefree nature of youth, or that I’m diving into the nostalgia of youth as a way to escape real life.
But I actually think that these books are always worthwhile because growing up is never complete. We never arrive at having all of life’s answers and when we do come upon some answers, we tend to forget. So to read coming-of-age stories is to get reminders from these characters on what’s important in life.
When Harry Potter or Scout Finch or Francie Nolan (from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) learn some foundational truths — that the world isn’t always just, that relationships are what matter in life, that judging people’s actions is a delicate business — we, as readers, re-learn those same lessons.
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, young Francie Nolan is living a hardscrabble life in New York City. We first meet her at age 11 — impossibly innocent — and follow her through age 17 or so.
The story doesn’t move very quickly, but I had hard time putting it down. As the years progress, Francie learns about being a woman in the early 20th century, about self-reliance, about the complexity of people’s emotions, actions, and motivations. Ultimately, she figures out — or, begins to figure out — what it takes and what it means to flourish in hard places. Even a tree can grow in the concrete jungle of Brooklyn.
Honestly, you don’t need to know a whole lot more about the plot. Quite simply, it’s a beautifully written story about a young woman finding her way in the world. Everything about the writing is wonderfully evocative — the sense of place, Francie’s inner swirl of emotions, the revelations and realizations that come with our teenaged years, and the eye-opening wonder at finding out you’re more capable than you once thought. It’s easy to see why this book has stood the test of time.
I’ll leave you with one final quote, which I think is my favorite from the book:
“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains — a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone — just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn absolutely deserves a spot on your lifetime reading list.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton
Another topic that always grabs my attention? The polar exploration narrative. The poles are so intense, physically and psychologically, that any story involving them is bound to be dramatic and entertaining.
The Belgica expedition of 1897, which I hadn’t heard of before reading this book, was one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions and the very first to overwinter — that is, the ship stayed trapped in the ice through the long polar night, in which the sun disappears entirely for 4-5 months.
The crew included a young Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 would become the first man to reach the South Pole, and in 1926 would become the first to verifiably reach the North Pole. It also included Frederick Cook, who would become nearly as famous, though for very different, slightly nefarious reasons. I don’t have space here to go through his crazy story, but it’s worth reading up on.
In the midst of a long couple of years on the Belgica, it became clear how devastating that long winter darkness can be on the human psyche — a few men didn’t make it out alive and the majority experienced debilitating mental effects. The Madhouse in the title is apt.
The task of survival — which was certainly not a given — required a Herculean effort to dig and claw their ship out of thick sea-ice. Amundsen and Cook, who were able to maintain their mental health (Amundsen, in fact, seemed to thrive on suffering), pushed their crewmates to almost unimaginable feats of strength and endurance so that the group would not perish.
As a chronicle of survival, the story is inspiring; as a chronicle of leadership, it’s saddening. Commander Adrien de Gerlache was obsessed with image (what would the citizens of his native Belgium say about the trip?) and conflict aversion — not a great recipe for success in life-threatening situations.
For those interested in non-fiction adventure narratives, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a great read about a lesser known polar expedition that not only molded the greatest polar explorer of all-time, but also provided great insight into the acute mental health effects of unending cold and darkness.
I listened to this one on audio, which was superbly and dramatically narrated.
And in case you missed it: Endurance is our November and December read for The Big Read. Today’s the last day to get 20% off your first year of an annual subscription:
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space!