Friday, April 1, 2016

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.  Instead they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins Oliver and Eugene, barely one and my sister Margaret dead and gone".

And so begins Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's extraordinary memoir of his poverty stricken childhood from age four when his family moved to Limerick in the 1930's ending at age nineteen when he moved back to America.  Angela's Ashes was a literary sensation when it was published in 1996, an international bestseller that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and now having read it I can certainly see why.

Some might say, well, do I really want to read a memoir about an author's impoverished childhood?  Oh but you do want to read this book.  You want to read it because it's very funny as Frank McCourt tells us about his family, the neighbors, the goings on in the pubs, Catholic schools etc.  It's also tragic and very moving when you learn what the McCourt family endured.  I was shocked about what poverty is really like and Frank McCourt is a gifted writer who tells his story from the mindset of how young Frank age four, seven, thirteen experienced what was going on around him.

Angela's Ashes caused a scandal in Limerick when it was published.  Some felt the book presented an unfair portrait of Limerick.  I can see their point because every city and town particularly in the Great Depression had neighborhoods where people were living a hand to mouth existance.  John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is one such example and of course there is widespread poverty today.

As for why the McCourt's were so poor? Alcoholism.  Frank's father could not hold a job and if he did have a job he'd be drinking away his wages at the pubs. Frank McCourt said that he waited so long to publish his memoir because he couldn't do it while his mother was alive and as I continued to read the book I had an evolving opinion about Angela McCourt, Frank's mother.  She isn't the warmest of mothers. Their father drinking away is a much more amiable sort.  Angela understandably is frazzled, worried and angry and very often in tears about the situation her family is in.  However by the time the novel ended and I realized by hook or by crook Angela kept the family together despite all the heartache she experienced herself I really admired her.

Frank McCourt would go on to write two more memoirs, Tis about what happened at nineteen when he got to America and Teacher Man which recounts his thirty years as a schoolteacher in New York City.  He passed away a few years ago but his masterpiece Angela Ashes will be read and marveled at one hundred years from now.

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