Money To Live

September 26, 2008

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Filed under: savings — by moneytolive @ 5:00 am

Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming of age story of Irish-American Francie Nolan set in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. The book is wonderful, and has lots of details about how Francie’s mother deals with money.

The Nolan family is poor, and when there is not enough food, Francie’s mother tells the children that they are explorers at the North Pole and they have to ration their food. It is very sad when Francie is old enough to realize the “game” is not much of a game.

When Francie is born, her maternal grandmother tells her mother, Katie, to start saving money to buy a piece of land. By saving 5¢ a day in a tin can, it will take about three years to save $50. They talk about ways to save the 5¢: bargain for groceries, burn less coal, and turn the lamp off.

Katie’s mother saves up $50 and thinks that she buys a piece of land. Since she cannot read, though, she does not realize she is given a fake land deed. She saves up again, and her husband spends the money on chickens, which are all either killed or stolen.

Katie saves up as much as she can, in part by asking her children for pennies they get from selling junk. Katie makes withdrawals a few times (to cover medical and transportation expenses), but always requires the amount be repaid with interest. At one point, the bank is emptied to cover moving expenses, and Katie starts saving again.

Eventually, Katie buys a piece of land with the money, but under sad circumstances. I will not say more than that because I do not want to give away the plot.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a CPI infation calculator. CPI is the consumer price index, which represents prices of goods and services purchased by urban households. The CPI has been calculated since 1913, so the calculator only goes back that far. These would be Katie’s savings goals today:

  • 5¢ in 1913 is $1.11 in 2008 dollars — a reasonable amount to save on a daily basis.
  • $50 in 1913 is $1,110.93 in 2008 dollars — not nearly enough to buy land anywhere near Brooklyn

I highly recommend this book. It is a great piece of literature with insight into the struggles of a family trying to make ends meet.


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