Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith (1963)

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Of Betty Smith’s (1896 – 1972), four novels, it’s for her first, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) that she’s best remembered. Joy in the Morning, her second novel (1947) has many autobiographical elements, much like her first. It weaves its narrative around the challenges of New York’s Irish immigrant families, their struggles with poverty, and one young woman’s coming of age.

Though it’s populated with different characters, Joy in the Morning picks up where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn left off. Here, instead of Francie Nolan, we have Annie McGairy as the novel’s heroine. It begins in 1927 in Brooklyn, when Annie meets and falls in love with Carl Brown.

Though she’s only eighteen as the story begins, Annie, like the real-life Betty, follows her new husband to a university in the Midwest where he is to study law. Marriage, she soon finds, is no walk in the park. The couple has little money, few friends, and their New York family in no longer nearby. In Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith imbues Annie with strength and resilience, something she herself had to draw upon during her parallel time of upheaval.

This essay gives a detailed history of how the novel came to be, Betty’s conflicts with her publisher, and a brief synopsis, starting as follows:

Joy in the Morning is a semi-autobiographical novel relying on memory rather than plot. It is a simple novel recalling Smith’s move to Ann Arbor, the early days of her marriage and her first pregnancy. Smith brilliantly portrays the misunderstandings between a young couple, the joys and problems of pregnancy and birth. The subdued message is that love and marriage are not perfect, but worthwhile nevertheless.

The novel starts in a town hall in a midwestern state where Annie McGairy, just arrived from Brooklyn, is marrying Carl Brown, a young law student. Carl is ambitious and has pretensions, whereas Annie is sometimes ashamed of her accent, yet feels a working class solidarity.

When Annie speaks, the clerk is astonished by her accent, and Carl corrects her grammar. As soon as the ceremony is done, the young couple sits down on an outside bench and counts how much money they have so that they can get through the upcoming week.

Carl had been earning his meals working as a bus boy in the cafeteria, making five dollars a week on a paper route, and receiving five dollars a week from his mother. Carl’s mother discontinues his allowance when he tells her he is married, and, as a married student, he is not eligible for a tuition loan or a scholarship. They realize that Carl will be working so hard that they will almost never see each other. Carl complains about being poor but Annie says: “But it’s not the tenement kind of poor. That’s being poor for nothing”

In 2010, Harper Perennial Classics reissued this book in an edition for a new generation of readers.

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A tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

See also: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
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A 1963 review of Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

From the original review of Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith in the New York Herald Tribune, September, 1963: The tree that grew so wondrously in Brooklyn has been transplanted, these 20 years later, to Midwestern soil and the agreeable news today Is that it flourishes nicely out there, too.

This is not to say, you understand, that Joy in the Morning  by Betty Smith is a sequel to the sensational seedling that Betty Smith planted way back then. And yet, in a way, it is. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the girl was Francie Nolan, and a fetching Irish-German child she was — imaginative, romantic. tough-fibered and crazy about books.

In Joy in the Morning the girl is Annie McGairy, just turned 18, also Brooklyn-born, Irish-German, a dreamer and a realist and crazy about books. They could be cousins. They could be Betty Smith.

Another autobiographical story

For if one may say so, Miss Smith—as she set down to write Joy in the Morning — must have been remembering when she, too, like Annie McGairy, left school at 14 to work; fell in love with a Brooklyn boy studying law at a Midwestern university and married him.

She herself became a student at the university, and then a writer, beginning with one-act plays; and had a daughter. Who says a writer has to go across the world to find a story?

So Joy in the Morning jogs along at the steady, even pace of a narrative whose author is in full command of married couple, quarrels and tears, love and laughter (Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”), hardship, fear, small triumphs that are really great ones, parenthood, new day dawning.

A solid, honest narrative

It would be too easy to say that this is a sure-fire pattern, when in all truth its success depends on the tone that Miss Smith gives it, too honest to be merely sentimental, too personal to be detached.

Being one whose early writing was for the theater, she all but inevitably writes in terse, solidly visualized “scenes” that let the dialogue carry most of the burden.

Indeed, one can imagine this novel as a play the young Betty Smith might have written, a play that could have found its way into the department of wholesome productions for college and community drama groups.

This is said with respect. Miss Smith’s novel is a good one in the sense that an old-time Broadway manager once said that a good play contains a character for whom you find yourself rooting.

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Joy in the Mornign by Betty Smith

Joy in the Morning on Amazon
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A new retelling of an old story

I would observe that Joy in the Morning lacks the freshness and vitality of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It does not, as Lewis Gannett said of that earlier book, “sing.”

But it would be a stony-hearted reader of Joy in the Morning who did not find him or herself moved by Annie McGairy of Flatbush, as she walks across the Midwestern campus and worried lest a cop will ask her to leave, as she eavesdrops outside a classroom, taking notes and doing assignments on her own, as she awaits and experiences the birth of her first child.

It will occur to you that Miss Smith has overlooked no ingredient to round out a new retelling of an old story. But then it also will occur to you that the retelling has a simple unpretentious air of truth.

It can make a big difference in favor of such a book as hers. (reviewed by John K. Hutchins)

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Maggie-Now by Betty S

You might also like: Maggie-Now by Betty Smith

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Somewhat sentimental, yet worth reading

Joy in the Morning didn’t capture readers’ (or critics’) imaginations to the degree that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn did, nor did Betty Smith’s subsequent novels, Maggie-Now and Tomorrow Will be Better. 

“What is the difference between happiness and contentment?”
       “Well, happy is like when somebody gives you a big hunk of something wonderful and it’s too big to hold. So you pull off a piece from time to time to hold in your hand. that’s being contented. anyway, that’s the way I look at it.”

Still, Joy in the Morning is an engaging story, and because of its strong autobiographical elements will be of interest to fans of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn who would like to learn more about the hopes and dreams of the author when she was a young adult.

More about Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

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