OF THE BABY NAME FRANCES
Frances “Franny” Glass is the sister half of J. D. Salinger’s short novel, Franny and Zooey, published in 1961 from two earlier appearances in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1957. Franny is a 20-year old college student who is having an existential breakdown and receives spiritual assistance from her brother, Zooey. Franny feels, as do so many young people, that life is meaningless and purposeless, and she has an egocentric, materialistic boyfriend who only serves to solidify such beliefs. She is also afraid that she is in danger of succumbing to a soul-less existence herself. Franny is the youngest in an eccentric family of seven siblings, who have been raised on an odd mixture of religious traditions by two retired vaudevillians, who also promote their children as radio “quiz kids”. Franny is at the point of almost catatonic immobility, whispering her “Jesus prayer” over and over as a mantra of salvation and mercy. It is her brother, Zooey, who ultimately comes to her rescue, reminding her of their older brothers’ teachings, which were imposed upon both of them at an early age. He points out that Franny has returned to the bosom of her family in her moment of crisis, and that her idea of Jesus is too exalted to be realistic. The holiness she seeks is all around her; it is in the chicken soup her mother offers her, it is to be found in the simple act of shining one’s shoes. And finally, Franny “…just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.” There is, after all, no real need for a Jesus prayer. The prayer is all around her, and all around everyone.
Mary Frances or “Francie” as she’s called is the sensitive and imaginative young protagonist in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the 1943 novel by Betty Smith, which was also made into a movie in 1945. The book traces her coming of age as the daughter of an Irish-American family living in near poverty in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Their life is hardscrabble, tenuously held together by the mother’s fierce determination to make life better for her children and the father’s dreamy, alcohol-fueled, well-meaning benevolence. Mother is a janitress; Father is an occasional singing waiter. Their daughter, like the tenacious tree that grows and thrives in the cement of the squalid street, is able to rise above all of the obstructions life sets before her. She never becomes bitter or cynical about her plight, rather, she chooses to see the wonder of common, everyday delights, and she perseveres on her path with calm and proud certainty. She observes, she learns, and most importantly, she loves.