Friday, July 25, 2008

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

I've wanted to read Angela's Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt for about a decade now. My Irish friends repeatedly told me that if I considered myself to be Irish I would read this book. They raved about what a fabulous story it was, and how it really captured the essence of what it was like to be Irish during the Great Depression.

It sounded promising, but I didn't read the book.

Despite the fact that it received excellent reviews, and was even a Pulitzer Prize winner, I could never get past the pathetic-looking child on the front cover. Any book with a cover like that simply could not be remotely uplifting or happy, could it? It must be depressing. I don't like depressing.

So I didn't read the book.

When I heard of the summer reading challenge at Small-Leaved Shamrock for the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture, I thought it would be fun to participate, but I had no idea what book I would read... after all, I don't have a lot of reading time these days. Plus, I had dawdled around for too long, and it was too late to order a book online. We only have one, small, eclectic bookstore in town, and it doesn't have an IRISH section.

I remembered seeing Angela's Ashes (and the sequel, 'Tis: A Memoir) on a previous visit, so I went back to see if it was still there, and it was. I had looked at this book once before, but a friend of mine talked me out of buying it. "Depressing," she called it. "It will make you so mad!"

I didn't need to be depressed and mad, thank you very much, so I didn't buy it.

This time, I picked up the book and read the back cover. All the reviews highly praised the book:

"Frank McCourt's lyrical Irish voice will draw comparisons to Joyce. It's that seductive, that hilarious. But McCourt's near-starvation in the Limerick slums has a gritty drama somehow more suited for our times. Even his stint in a typhoid ward seems a blessed relief from daily home life on and off the dole. These people never lapse into self-pity (they can't afford it); they never lose their fire. In the annals of memoir, this name will be writ large." ~Mary Karr
Near-starvation? Typhoid ward? On and off the dole? Yikes. This really didn't sound like the book for me.

As I was getting ready to leave the store, I wound up having a conversation with one of the owners who had read the book. She agreed that it was, indeed, a depressing book. "You'll hate the father," she kept saying. But will I like the book? "It's a great book, but you'll hate the father. As a genealogist, you should read it for the historical perspective."

Ok, she had a point there. I bought the book.

When I got home, I reluctantly turned to the first page:

"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.

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

For some, twisted reason, that last sentence cracked me up, and I was hooked.

I had heard plenty of miserable stories of Irish Catholic childhoods from my mother, aunt, and grandmother. I wanted to know more.

Angela's Ashes is Frank McCourt's autobiography. When the book begins, Frank is "three going on four," so the story is told from the perspective of a preschooler. It takes place during the Great Depression and World War II, a time of worldwide sadness and suffering.

McCourt's family is dirt poor. His father is an alcoholic (as were, apparently, many Irish men of that era). He can't keep a job, and frequently "drinks the dole money," so they seldom have enough to eat, much less clothes or adequate housing. His mother is hopeful, yet is constantly let down by her drunkard husband. Why she keeps having children with him is beyond me.

To be honest, I have not yet finished this book. I'm about half-way through; as I said, my reading time is limited. At this point, I can say that the story is, indeed, depressing - more so than I imagined - and I do hate the father.

But I love the book's language:

"There aren't enough chairs for everyone so I sit on the stairs with my brothers to have bread and tea. Dad and Mam sit at the table and Grandma sits under the Sacred heart with her mug of tea. She says, I don't know under God what I'm goin' to do with ye. There is no room in this house. There isn't even room for one of ye.

"Malachy says Ye, ye, and starts to giggle and I say, Ye, ye, and the twins say Ye, ye, and we're laughing so hard we can hardly eat our bread.

"Grandma glares at us. What are ye laughin' at? There's nothin' to laugh at in this house. Ye better behave yeerselves before I go over to ye."
Despite the sadness, sickness, death, and despair, little Frank's wide-eyed innocence and wry wit shine through.

And I keep hoping, with every page turn, that the luck of the McCourt's will improve.

From a historical perspective, I really hope that my own, Irish ancestors did not suffer like the McCourts.


Angela's Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt, Scribner 1996; Hardcover, 368 pp., $26.00.

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth O'Neal

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1 comment:

Amy said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the book. McCourt has a way with words that makes such tough subject matter bearable. I'll read anything he writes.