Every summer, I try to revisit “Robinson Crusoe,” a book I’ve enjoyed since childhood. This year, though, my heart wasn’t in it. Crusoe’s castaway existence seemed a bit too much like coronavirus world to be much fun.
Even so, in the past few months, I’ve found myself thinking of a crude calendar Crusoe makes after he’s shipwrecked — a wooden post on which he marks each day with a notch. Crusoe rightly figures that a clear sense of time will help him stay well. On a tropical island where one day often resembles another, the post and its notches usefully remind him that the weeks still gather to make a year.
In a strange and confusing season, we’ve had our own challenges keeping time. With work, school and civic schedules jumbled by the pandemic, 2020 has been less a matter of June, July or August than Phase 1, Phase 2 or Phase 3. Familiar traditions like Labor Day have seemed an especially welcome way to turn the page on the year, starting a fresh chapter that will, with any luck, prove calmer than what went before it.
Labor Day’s arrival earlier this month brought its typical round of stock-taking on the summer. Our garden yielded only a handful of tomatoes, but it gave us a daily distraction from the evening news. My wife, using an online program, began teaching herself Spanish. I made an ambitious summer reading list and, as usual, got through almost none of it.
Over long, hot weeks, a paper bookmark on my nightstand has been moving, glacially, deeper into the heart of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s 1943 novel about a young girl growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the previous century. I’d never read Smith’s book, figuring it was for children — or, more specifically, girls. But when my friend Willard Spiegelman talked up the novel in a Wall Street Journal article this summer, I decided to give it a try.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” has a following among young adult readers, but it seems to speak most directly to grown-ups in its frank recognition that life can be hard. Francie Nolan, the book’s heroine, grows up poor in an often unforgiving city, but she’s clever and compassionate and learns to thrive, much like the urban tree of the title. Hundreds of service men who read it during World War II wrote Smith to tell her how it had sustained them. A Marine said it had made him cry.
The book is sad at times, but warm and funny, too, like life. Smith’s novel is also like life in how it can seem to move slowly, though it’s pressing ahead more quickly than you think.
Maybe that’s something to remember about this odd year, which has sometimes felt eternal, though we’ve managed to navigate nine months of it. Let’s give ourselves a round of applause.