Book vs. Book: Set in New York City

This is the first post of our new series, Book Versus Book, where our staff pick a book and advocate for its place as a favorite among readers. For our first post, we are highlighting books that take place in New York City.

Why did you choose your book?

Elaine: Part of the reason was learning more about the elitists in this era in New York City.  I had heard stories about the Rockefellers and the Carnegie family from old acquaintances, so a story about J.P. Morgan intrigued me.  The other was the interesting process of how the private book collection was developed and eventually turned into the J. Pierpont Morgan Public Library. 

Jane: I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith while in quarantine of 2020 and in the middle of a reading slump. Almost immediately, I was hooked on the story of Francie Nolan and her family. It was also exciting to read about the early twentieth century through the eyes of a young girl.

Why do you think it is a great book?

Elaine: The book touches on several different themes and topics, as we journey with Belle through her busy—and somewhat perilous—life’s journey, and these themes are fascinating.  Her challenges as a “colored girl” posing as white were a prevalent theme throughout the book.  Belle learns how to hide this in plain sight by flaunting her womanly attributes and being flirtatious and head-strong among her “enemies.”  As J.P. Morgan’s private librarian, the book also addresses her gender and the power-plays she makes to be successful in a man’s world.  Throughout the novel, Woman’s Suffrage is addressed, implying her unique situation is an inspiring achievement among those in the movement.  The story demonstrates the constant struggle without beating you over the head to prove the point.  The other great point is finding the connections between the famous names behind so many landmarks in New York City with the men and families that they were named for.

Jane: I think everyone will enjoy this book. It has a great pace and it doesn’t feel too dry at some parts and has you rooting for the characters. Francie is similar to other characters in coming of age books, but what makes Francie so great is that while times are hard and she works to figure out who she is, Francie never looses sight of what she wants and her caring nature for her family. As the novel progresses, Francie becomes more aware of her father’s drinking and has to give up her chance of going to high school to help support her mother and younger sister. The novel closely follows the Nolan family’s difficulties trying to achieve the American Dream and the ongoing gender restrictions Francie faces throughout her adolescent years.

Commenting on the other book:

Elaine: I find a lot of similarities between both books, both dealing in majority with the daughter of a poor family trying to make it in New York City and the strife they endured as they lost their innocence from cruel events and learned to soldier on.  While Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t given the chance at advancing her education and making a better life for herself, she is more like Belle in that despite her background, she continues to pave her way through her writing.  A good part of the book deals with Belle’s love for learning and reading, mostly history, art and architecture, and like Francie, Belle relies on her passion for knowledge to help her in her work.

Jane: Both books are set during the early twentieth century and shows the mutual hardship for women trying to achieve their goals. In The Personal Librarian, Belle is trying to make a career for herself in the book industry while worried some one might notice her passing for white. Belle struggles with passing but sees it as a way for her to try and have a better life than her parents but also to have meaningful experiences. The two characters share a love of learning and an affirmation on living.

Plot Summaries

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Francie Nolan begins the novel as an eleven years old in Williamsburg Brooklyn, where a tree called the Tree of Heaven grows among the tenement houses. Her parents, Johnny and Katie, support the family by working as janitors, and Johnny also works as a waiter.  The stress of a life in poverty divides Francie’s parents. Katie becomes the sole person with income while Johnny becomes an alcoholic. Due to Johnny’s drinking, the Nolan family moves three times throughout Brooklyn. As Francie grows up, she must navigate the clashing socio-economic situation in Brooklyn, discord within her family, and other hardships.

The Personal Librarian: Belle de Costa Greene (whose real name Belle Marion Greener) is a light-skinned African-American woman posing as white while she navigates through the art and antiquities world of the early twentieth century as the personal librarian to the steel tycoon J.P. Morgan.  Her role included purchasing rare books and artwork for his private collection.  She makes a name for herself as a “modern” woman in her chosen field, outbidding others in the acquiring of rare manuscripts and mingling among the upper class while attending high society functions.  All the while, she worries that her secret heritage will be exposed and her life ruined.  Throughout the story, she experiences the excitement of being among the financially or academically high ranking men in addition to the trials of being a single woman among them.   Her personal life, however, gets far more treacherous when she becomes romantically involved with a married man and encounters unwanted advances from her employer.  But it is her work at making the library’s collection outstanding that is her real passion.  In the end, J. P.’s son, Jack, decides to make the collection public; she is pleased with her work and how it contributes to New York City.

For Our Readers

If you’re interested in Francie’s and Belle’s stories, you can read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Personal Librarian as a print book (regular or large print), ebook, or audiobook from the BCCLS collection.  

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