I love reading (no big surprise there) and I especially enjoy it when a book provides interesting “rabbit trails” to investigate. This month the Second Tuesday evening book group read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I somehow had it in my mind that I had once read this book, but I quickly realized that in fact I had not. As one of the book club members said, “What a treasure!” Set in the early 1900s, I learned all sorts of things about the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and the lives of the very poor at that time. However, two items in particular fascinated me… and I thought I’d share them.
First, have you ever wondered what type of tree the title of the book refers to? Many of us were expecting something like a majestic oak or maple. Instead, the “Tree of Heaven” is the Ailanthus altissima or Chinese sumac and it was first introduced to America in 1784. At first prized as an ornamental that grew quickly in urban areas, it is now considered an invasive species in many States.
Another bit of information I just HAD to learn more about while reading the book is from a scene in which Francie and her brother Neeley tell each other what they want for Christmas:
“I’ll tell you what I want and you can buy it for me,” said Neeley.
“All right. What?”
“Spats?” Francie’s voice scaled up.
“Pearl grey ones,” he said firmly.
I had a vague idea that “spats” had something to do with shoes, and indeed they were originally called “spatterdashes” and were designed to protect shoes and ankles from mud, etc. (although Neeley probably wanted them more to be fashionable and show off his improving economic status).
And in the typical “one thing leads to another” way of searching, I now also know that I’ve seen spats every time I enjoyed a snack featuring a certain cane-wielding, monocle-wearing, top-hatted peanut.
I could go on (author Betty Smith led a fascinating life) but I’ll leave further investigations to those who are interested — or drop by Reader Services any time and discuss reading rabbit trails with us.