Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
“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.
Review: I read ‘Tis when I was a teenager, and it’s one of those books that have always stuck with me. I’ve wanted to read Angela’s Ashes for years. I’m glad that I finally got a chance to read it.
Frank McCourt was born in depression-era New York, but poverty and his father’s drinking drove his immigrant family back to Ireland. Life in Ireland isn’t any easier for Frank. He grows up in extreme poverty and faces disease and starvation. His only goal is to become a man so that he can get a job and support his family.
This memoir is pretty bleak. Frank did not have an easy childhood. His hunger, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions led to serious diseases that altered his life and killed a few of his siblings. Even though this book is difficult to read, it’s not completely depressing. There are moments of startling humor and beauty. The writing is very good. It’s blunt and occasionally vulgar. It’s honest without being melodramatic. I could really feel Frank’s desperation to make a better life for himself and his family, and I couldn’t imagine growing up like he did.
This book shows humanity at its best and its worst. Frank’s story has a lot of causal violence, but it also proves how kind people can be. One of my favorite scenes is when Frank steals a bag of oranges from a store. The store owner know that Frank and his siblings are starving, so instead of calling the police, the store owner gives the kids a second bag of fruit.
I don’t know very much about depression/WWII era Ireland, so the political and cultural aspects of this memoir are interesting to me. The book is a firsthand account of the conflicts between the Protestants and the Catholics and the English and Irish. Being an Irish Catholic is a huge part of Frank’s identity. I liked reading about someone whose life, experiences, and beliefs are so different from mine.
I enjoyed this book overall, but I have to admit that I was bored for a lot of it. I think the plot is slow, flat, and repetitive. Every time Frank starts to get ahead in life, something tragic happens that knocks him back down. This does help the reader feel Frank’s frustration, but the cycle becomes boring and predictable after a few hundred pages.
If you can get past the repetition, I highly recommend this book. It provides an in-depth look at extreme poverty and makes you grateful for everything you have. I can see why some people consider it a classic and an important work of modern literature.