"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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." So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank's father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy -- exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling -- does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father's tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank's survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig's head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors -- yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness. Angela's Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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."
Frank McCourt's account of his deprived childhood manages to maintain humour, whilst not losing the pathos in the more tragic events in his childhood (including the loss of siblings and the absence of a feckless father).
Although there has been some controversy regarding the veracity of these memoirs, I feel sure it is an accurate reflexion of the sort of conditions many experienced in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century. The brutality of the Catholic church (as well as some more compassionate moments), also rings true.
Frank McCourt is very much a story-teller, and the book is very readable.
Angela's Ashes is driven by two strong questions. First, I know that Frank McCourt is now a famous author and a much lauded teacher, and so I know that he dragged himself out of it, through the typhoid and the starvation and the infections and rags, and out into a better place in the world. So the first question of the book is, How did that happen? The second question, implied by the title, is that the mother (Angela) will die. So how is that going to happen? That's the second question. The magic of this particular engine, this particular method of making me turn the pages, is that these questions are never overtly stated in the text, there isn't a "Now that I'm a teacher, I remember back when I was an urchin..." and we don't have any foreshadowing of the mother's death, or any foreshadowing of anything. Those questions that drove me insane with curiosity (How could he survive this? How could he?) were just buried in the fact that the book existed at all, and had that title.
The other genius thing about this book is that the story has no "Now that I'm older and wiser and understand the world" type of context. Everything that happens in the story is filtered only through the consciousness of the main character at exactly that age in his life, whether it's that an angel brings babies and lays them on the stairs, or whether it's that the life of a messenger boy is the best he can hope for, or whether it's that devils will poke him with pitchforks for eternity, or whether it's one line of Shakespeare that infiltrates his education, we only see everything from right inside the character's point of view. Never the author, never the character later in life, only in the moment.
Rather than making the facts of the book more palatable, because the character knows no better, this way of narrating the story actually makes it the more horrifying, because there's no author to step in and say, "And that's just how poor we were, that we had to burn the walls of our rooms, how sad, how dreadful." Which leaves the reader to think it. And there's no author to say, "And with that one line of Shakespeare, the whole possibility of language as art was lit up in me," it's left to the reader to discover that connection for himself.
Brilliant writing, I mean, obviously, I have nothing to say that's not worshipful. Amazing, brilliant, fearful, desperate, grand.
I was deeply affected reading about the struggles of the McCourt family--father Malachy, mother Angela and children Frank, Malachy, Oliver, Eugene and Margaret. There has never been, nor will there ever be, as personal a portrait of poverty as this one.
Life--in the form of the Irish addiction to a wee bit o' drink--has beaten down the elder Malachy until he is no longer able to provide for the family. Father flees to find work in England but neglects to send any money home, leaving his wife and children, already living in squalor, to further fend for themselves. They steal and beg and tear wood from the walls to burn in the stove. They get their nourishment from tea so weak it's just colored water. They live like sardines in a flat so miserable that every year they have to cram themselves into an upstairs room when winter floods and overflowing toilets make the place only half-habitable.
The memoir--an astoundingly detailed recollection--is a series of vignettes of poverty, cruel schoolmasters, and disease and death. Frank survives (just barely) an existence so horrible that it would have given Dickens nightmares.
"Angela's Ashes" would not be the phenomenal success it is without the poignant voice of Frank McCourt. Seldom have I read an author who can take me from tears to laughter in the same sentence. The prose is gritty, realistic and never self-pitying.
McCourt spent most of his life composing this memoir and such patient devotion definitely shows through. Each page, each sentence is carefully crafted to paint a vivid word picture. Here, for instance, is our introduction to the streets of Limerick:
"From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of p*ss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages."
I'm sure the Limerick Tourist Association is not sending McCourt any love letters these days. Still, it's possible to see the author's nostalgic attachment to the city--if only as a benchmark of the place where he triumphed over bad luck, disease and indigence.
McCourt is as clear-eyed when it comes to describing the people in his life. Just take a look at our initial introduction to the wayward head of the house:
"My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head. When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that."
The prose is never flowery or padded. It gallops forward in a breathless stream of consciousness that will have you alternately wanting to take it slow to savor each word, while rushing ahead to see what's next. To speed your eyes along the page, McCourt dispenses with quotation marks, like another favorite writer of mine, Cormac McCarthy. The style can be off-putting at first, but you'll soon find yourself rocking in the rhythm of his gentle Irish lilt.
Save for the closing pages when Frank finally escapes Ireland and boards a boat for America, there is no relief from the grim, unrelenting struggle of this family. But McCourt always manages to find humor and joy even in the darkest hours.
As he writes in the opening paragraphs, "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." While I would never wish hard times on anyone, I'm glad they visited Frank McCourt. We are all the richer for his miserable childhood.
The first hour was torturously boring. Sadly, the book became more interesting as the tragedies started occurring.
As a mom, I cannot fathom how Angela was able to get through the heartaches she had to endure. As a parent, I am equally appalled at how selfish Frank’s father was - how he could let his children go without because of his own selfish desires.
It was particularly poignant to hear the story narrated by the author. I felt as though he was in the room, sitting beside me, tell me his story.
I was not satisfied with the ending…I want to know what happens next! Frank had to beg, borrow, and steal to get to America; how did his behaviour change (or not) after he got there? Did he send money back to help out his mother and brothers? Did they stay in Ireland or come to America as well? Whatever happened to his father?
I realize now that there is a sequel called ‘Tis, which I feel compelled to read. I watched the movie after reading the book, and I thought it was very well done and lived up to how I had pictured things in my mind.
MY RATING: 4 stars!
I wasn't sure about this book at first. It's very, very raw. McCourt's style is stream-of-consciousness; he eschews quotation marks, tones down his punctuation and sticks mostly to the present tense. The narrative feels like it came straight out of someone's head. We get an unfiltered account of McCourt's life. We live each event right along with him.
Slowly but surely, the book grew on me. I found myself becoming absorbed. I was eager to read onwards. The content is more than a little depressing, but McCourt tells his story with enough warmth and humor that I never felt overwhelmed by his family's difficulties.
I doubt I'll ever read this again, but I'm glad I read it once. It was a very slow read, but definitely a worthwhile one.
After the tragic loss of his 7-week-old sister Margaret, Frank's family (dad, mom, 3-year-old brother Malachy and 1-year-old twins Oliver and Eugene) moves back to Ireland when Frank is four. They are promptly turned away from their paternal grandparents' house and sent to Dublin, where they are told that Frank's father should be able to get some compensation for having fought for Ireland's cause. This turns out to be untrue, and, penniless, they end up at the police station, where only the kindness of the officers gives them the money they need to continue to their maternal grandmother's home.
Frank's father is a drunkard from Northern Ireland who can't keep a job longer than the third paycheck, and even the dole money he is given when out of work winds up going to drink rather than to feeding his family. They live with fleas, in a unit that floods on the lower level, forcing them to spend much of their time upstairs.
The reader finds out about the peculiar prejudice of the southern Irish against those of the North, easily distinguishable by their accents, and also about the injustice bred by poverty. We see Frank and his family going hungry while other families eat, and Frank wishing that someone else could be his mother simply because then he could always have mashed potatoes or soup. Siblings sicken and die, and his mother is shamefully reduced to begging for scraps to feed her children. Other fathers go to England to work, as does Frank's father, but, unlike the other fathers, no money is sent to his family. In spite of Frank's intelligence and the recommendation of his schoolmaster, Frank is turned away as an altar boy due to his poverty, and other doors are closed to him as well.
In spite of it all, there is hope and laughter in this novel. There are people we want to punch, and people we want to hug. There is the small joy of having enough to buy a piece of candy or go to the movie, and the larger joy of sometimes having a full meal or a couple of coins in your pocket.
This is a tug-at-your-heart, in your face look at a hardscrabble life that many of us couldn't imagine, written by someone who falls in love with the words of Shakespeare and with Wodehouse novels while recovering from typhoid fever in the hospital. It is a tale that all readers will love, and I highly recommend it for anyone's shelves.
She says that if Dad's job lasts we'll get proper cups and maybe saucers and some day, with the help of God and His Blessed Mother, we'll have sheets on the bed and if we save a long time a blanket or two instead of those old coats which people must have left behind during the Great Famine.
That dog is a right Hindu, so she is, and that's where I found her mother wandering around Bangalore. If ever you're getting a dog, Francis, make sure it's a Buddhist. Good-natured dogs, the Buddhists. Never, never get a Mahommedan. They'll eat you sleeping. Never a Catholic dog. They'll eat you every day including Fridays.
Your mind is your house and if you fill it with rubbish from the cinemas it will rot in your head. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.
The style was different ... stream of consciousness. Quite realistic. Not enjoyable but important.
“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”
The depths of misery are shocking: a father getting occasional work but spending the money on alcohol instead of feeding his starving family, hellish bedbugs, getting hit in the classroom by teachers who don’t want questions of any kind asked, children sick and dying, blackening ankles in places where socks had holes, licking the grease off of newspapers which held someone else’s fish and chips, chopping down parts of the framing in a house for firewood, etc
On the other hand, it’s all told without complaint, and with humor in the pathos. The expressions and dialog are endearing. McCourt also has plenty of fond memories as well: reading in the library, going to the cinema to see American movies, getting an occasional bit of toffee, coming of age sexually, and getting his first jobs.
The story spans the pre- and post-WWII period, but what’s happening in the rest of the world is distant, which is true to not only McCourt being a child, but to Ireland’s neutrality and conflicted feelings about the war, obviously not fond of England and benefitting economically with Hitler’s advances, sad to say. He’s honest about the things he himself is not proud of having done, and captures the ‘voice’ of childhood at various ages well. He also has just the right small touches of sentimentality for some of the people along the way, and when he leaves Ireland and his family behind in finally ‘escaping’ to America.
On birth control:
Mam says, Alphie is enough. I’m worn out. That’s the end of it. No more children.
Dad says, The good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation.
Man says, As long as there are no more children eternal damnation sounds attractive enough to me.”
On the civil war and the English:
“People in families in the lanes of Limerick have their ways of not talking to each other and it takes years of practice. There are people who don’t talk to each other because their fathers were on opposite sides in the Civil War in 1922. If a man goes off and joins the English army his family might as well move to another part of Limerick where there are families with men in the English army. If anyone in your family was the least way friendly to the English in the last eight hundred years it will be brought up and thrown in your face and you might as well move to Dublin where no one cares.”
“Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can’t understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.
It’s getting dark. I walk my bicycle out of the graveyard. I have telegrams to deliver.”
On the famine:
“She says ‘twould break your heart to think of what the English did to us, that if they didn’t put the blight on the potato they didn’t do much to take it off. No pity. No feeling at all for the people that died in this very ward, children suffering and dying here while the English feasted on roast beef and guzzled the best of wine in their big houses, little children with their mouths all green from trying to eat the grass in the fields beyond, God bless us and save us and guard us from future famines.”
On reading, and thinking:
“At night I lie in bed thinking about Tom Brown and his adventures at Rugby School and all the characters in P.G. Wodehouse. I can dream about the red-lipped landlord’s daughter and the highwayman, and the nurses and nuns can do nothing about it. It’s lovely to know the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.”
On the rich, and religion:
“If they could walk, if they were in any way normal, she’d pack up and move to England out of this godforsaken country that fought so long for freedom and look at the state of us, de Valera in his mansion above in Dublin the dirty oul’ bastard and the rest of the politicians that can all go to hell, God forgive me. The priests can go to hell too and I won’t ask God to forgive me for saying the likes of that. There they are, the priests and nuns telling us Jesus was poor and ‘tis no shame, lorries driving up to their houses with crates and barrels of whiskey and wine, eggs galore and legs of ham and they telling us what we should give up for Lent. Lent, my arse. What are we to give up when we have Lent all year long?”
On school in Ireland at the time:
“One master will hit you if you don’t know that Eamon de Valera is the greatest man that ever lived. Another master will hit you if you don’t know that Michael Collins was the greatest man that ever lived.
Mr. Benson hates America and you have to remember to hate America or he’ll hit you.
Mr. O’Dea hates England and you have to remember to hate England or he’ll hit you.
If you ever say anything good about Oliver Cromwell they’ll all hit you.”
“The men sit because they’re worn out from walking to the Labour Exchange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world’s problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day. Some stop at the bookie to study the form and place a shilling or two on a sure thing. Some spend hours in the Carnegie Library reading English and Irish newspapers. A man on the dole needs to keep up with things because all other men on the dole are experts on what’s going on in the world. A man on the dole must be ready in case another man on the dole brings up Hitler or Mussolini or the terrible state of the Chinese millions. A man on the dole goes home after a day with the bookie or the newspaper and his wife will not begrudge him a few minutes with the ease and peace of his cigarette and his tea and time to sit in his chair and think of the world.”
This story is the one of Frank McCourt’s, an Irish-American who was raised in Limerick, Ireland. It is his life story from his earliest memories in New York through his life in Ireland until he returns to America at age 19. His life was a remarkable one and I can’t imagine living through the hardships that he’s endured. He lived a childhood in extreme poverty and nearly died of typhoid fever. Frank suffers the loss of his twin brothers and little sister. Frank’s father is an alcoholic that causes his family to live in squalor as he spends any money he earns in the pub until it is gone.
Frank’s story in Angela’s Ashes is one that contains so many unbelievable hardships, yet at the same time the reader is amazed by his resilience and continued fight to make something of his life and return to America.
Lisa lent me this book and told me that it was one of her favorites. I can see why. I have since learned that Frank McCourt received the Pulitzer Prize (1997) and National Book Critics Circle Award (1996) for Angela’s Ashes. He is also the author of ‘Tis, which continues the story of his life, picking up from the end of the Angela’s Ashes and focusing on life in America, and Teacher Man about his challenges as a teacher with his students.
Reading this book was so overwhelming to me! Its tale was remarkable and I felt such a sense of gratefulness for the life that I’ve lived in comparison to Frank’s. I don’t know how it is that I had never heard of this book nor movie. To avoid spoilers for those who have not read this excellent book, I will instead share with you one of my favorite parts of the book. Frank has written a composition on the Lord entitled “Jesus and the Weather” for an assignment in school. He is instructed to read it aloud to the class.
“This is my composition. I don’t think Jesus Who is Our Lord would have liked the weather in Limerick because it’s always raining and the Shannon keeps the whole city damp. My father says the Shannon is a killer river because it killed my two brothers. When you look at pictures of Jesus, He’s always wandering around ancient Israel in a sheet. It never rains there and you never hear of anyone coughing or getting consumption or anything like that and no one has a job there because all they do is stand around and eat manna and shake their fists and go to crucifixions.
Anytime Jesus got hungry all He had to do was walk up the road to a fig tree or an orange tree and have His fill. If He wanted a pint He could wave His hand over a big glass and there was the pint. Or He could visit Mary Magdalene and her sister, Martha, and they’d give him a His dinner no questions asked and He’d get his feet washed and dried with Mary Magdalene’s hair while Martha washed the dishes, which I don’t think is fair. Why should she have to wash the dishes while her sister sits out there chatting away with our Lord? It’s a good thing Jesus decided to be born Jewish in that warm place because if he was born in Limerick he’d catch the consumption and be dead in a month and there wouldn’t be any Catholic Church and there wouldn’t be any Communion or Confirmation and we wouldn’t have to learn the catechism and write compositions about Him. The End.”
This book is written without quotation marks and is written in his true voice. There are many songs, poems and other such recitals within the book. There are so many endearing and wonderful things that Frank shares in the book that will stick within the confines of my mind for a lifetime. I only wish that I could meet him! What an amazing thing that would be.
On Sher’s “Out of Ten Scale:”
If you have not read this book, it needs to be added to your MUST READ list. This is a book that will enrich your spirit and make you feel so grateful for not only ever meal you eat, but for your health as well. It is simply an amazing book!
For the genre Non-Fiction:Memoir, I am going to rate this book a 10 OUT OF 10.
This book is hilariously funny, beautifully written and poignant. I identified with the characters and the stories having grown up in a small coal mining town in the 60’s where everyone’s grandparents were immigrants from Europe. These are the same troubles and stories whether Irish, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak, German…and it all still rings true. ‘Tis and Teacher Man are on my TBR list – to be sure…
Although I enjoyed the book, I found it quite depressing. Sandy said she liked it because it spoke of resilience.
My favorite part was the chapter on his first confession. "Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession." He then went to communion and later that day threw up in his grandmother's backyard. She had a fit and made him return to confession. He said, "Bless me, faher, for I have sinned. It has been 24 hours since my last confession." He then told the priest he threw up God in his grandmother's backyard The priest said that was okay, just rinse it with water. He returned home and told his grandmother. She said, "Holy water or regular water." He returned to the confessional, "It has been five minutes since my last confession."