Honest, Sympathetic, Detailed, Unadorned
Honest and Sympathetic
Smith is very honest in her writing and consistently tells it like it is. We know Mama loves Neeley more than she loves Francie because Smith comes right out and tells us “It was pity and obligation towards her that she felt rather than love” (10.46). Brrr… that’s a cold way to describe how a mom feels for her child, right?
Well, that’s what we mean when we say Smith tells it like it is. She goes on to describe Katie as having “lost all her tenderness” by the time Neeley was a year old. It's a little hard to stomach, but there's no confusion at all about where Katie's coming from.
Smith is also is sympathetic to Mama, though, and shows her as capable, hardworking, and sometimes insecure. When she thinks about McShane, Mama doesn’t believe he could ever like someone like her. She thinks he will probably marry a “woman who knows about social life [. . .] the way a politician’s wife must” (42.90). Then, Smith adds the little detail about Mama hiding her hands to emphasize her insecurity. This helps humanize Mama and makes us warm up to her a bit.
Smith does the same thing with mixing honesty and sympathy with Sissy’s character. Sissy drips sex and lust wherever she goes, but while her promiscuity is not glossed over, Smith also lets us know that she is probably the kindest woman who ever lived.
Sissy is the one who is called in to help Johnny get through some painful sobering up periods. She is compassionate and giving but doesn’t have the best judgment all the time—especially when it comes to toys that she gives the children. Smith gives us an honest and sympathetic look at Sissy and leaves us unable to define her with one word.
We could go on and on here with all of the characters. Smith’s honesty and sympathetic style makes it impossible for us to make over-generalizations about the characters.
Smith gives us an experience not just a story.
Remember how on the day the US joins the war Francie collects all the items around her to put in an envelope to open fifty years later? By saving all these little details, the day can be relived and not just a memory.
Smith takes this same idea and leads us through a story so that we almost feel like we relive it, even though we weren’t there.
She does this by giving us specific details. For instance, we know exactly what the coffee, tea, and spices store looks and smells like:
There were a dozen scarlet coffee bins with adventurous words written across the front in black China ink […] The tea man had a wonderful pair of scales: two gleaming brass plates which had been rubbed and polished daily for more than twenty-five years until now they were think and delicate and looked like burnished gold. (16.7-10)
And here's a description of the new school:
Its old bricks glowed garnet in the late afternoon sun. There was no fence around the school yard and the school grounds were grass and not cement. Across from the school, it was practically open country—a meadow with goldenrod, wild asters and clover growing in it. (23.3)
Bricks that glow? Would you describe your school as glowing? Francie totally loves this school.
There are tons of other details throughout the book: Papa’s footsteps coming up to the apartment as he sings "Molly Malone;" Francie’s shuddering as she passes by the rooms with the airshafts; the rich family background. They all come together to paint a vivid picture—both of Brooklyn and the emotional and mental lives of the characters.
Some writers like to jazz up their writing by coming up with the fanciest possible way of saying something. Not Betty Smith, though—her writing is not on literary device overload.
Take this for example: “If [Francie] had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar” (26.35). That’s pretty blunt, right? It definitely gets right to the point.
It seems like Smith just wants to tell the story and let it speak for itself. Other than the tree, there aren’t any major symbols or elaborate similes and metaphors in this book.
This isn't to say that there aren't some moments when Smith shows that she can use figurative language just as well as anyone else. When Francie is talking down about some of her writing, she thinks her words are “like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them” (30.3). Another time, Francie compares her family to a cracked cup after they had a fight. She says, “It was whole and sound and held things well. When Papa died, the first crack came. And this fight tonight made another crack. Soon there will be so many cracks that the cup will break and we’ll all be pieces instead of a whole thing together” (44.126). Yup—Smith can dazzle with the best of them, and we think it's pretty cool that she often does so through Francie, an aspiring writer. These moments are the exception, though, and in general Smith's language is not all dressed up for a formal occasion—much like the lives she's writing about.