Book Review: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

It’s been ages since I’ve posted, and that’s for a variety of reasons. One, I had nothing to say.

This, my friends, is definitely worth your time: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt is a new (~25 yrs ago) book that absolutely blows your mind with its magnificence.

The genius of it is in how it absolutely brings you in and makes you care so very much. While you’re reading it (I listened to it on audio: Mr. McCourt read it aloud) you are deep inside this profoundly difficult, soul-challenging world of his childhood. And as soon as you park the car and leave for work you’re stuck inside yours; but at the end of your workday you get to climb back in your car and while your hands and feet are fighting your way through traffic, your mind and soul are back with young Frankie McCourt, starving, wet, with chronic bacterial conjunctivitis and an unbreakable resiliency. And the book engenders the queerest phenomenon: you want to be there.

And that’s saying a lot, because the 1930’s & 40’s Limerick of Frank McCourt’s childhood was brutally poor, rain-soaked, cold, diseased, and hard. To make matters worse Frankie’s Dad had that peculiar affliction in which he could love his family dearly and at the same time desert them completely for the drinking. How did they come out okay? Well first of all, plenty of them died: Of starvation, disease, hard times. But the survivors, what was their magic? One of Frank’s teachers summarized it by explaining to his students that they may be shoeless and poor on the outside but in their minds, it’s a palace. Their families, and their neighbors, and their storekeepers who gave them food on credit, and their schoolmasters who refused to quit despite the poverty, and their culture together somehow pulled them through. And their inner resilience.

Their humanity. This book is an exploration of it. Despite the most difficult circumstances one could suffer they didn’t collapse, they didn’t embitter, they took care of one another. That’s the most amazing part.

His father, “like the holy trinity,” had three parts: his father in the morning was caring and doting and story-telling and intimate, and in the afternoon a husband and family man a great father, and then Friday nights with the paycheck he became the guy who went out drinking, missing work next /getting fired / family back on the dole or begging. How could he abandon the family to destitution and starvation…? a sort of “Mr. Hyde” kind of regular transformation.

A priest, FINALLY, as most of them were worthless, came through in the end (actually the second-to-last priest in the book was the one who came through; the last wasn’t bad, he was only looking after Frank’s eternal soul, but was not as good as the second to last, anyway), redeeming at least in part the enormous investment all the families of Limerick and of Ireland had made into the church by granting Frank forgiveness. He did it with the authority that only someone of his stature can do. It was forgiveness for the sorrows he’d suffered, for his human condition.

Frank’s resiliency seemed inborn and prodigious. You almost envy his endless sorrows because you definitely respect his ability to rise above them. But it’s the farthest thing in the world from a self-congratulatory book. Survival constitutes the climax.

Personally, half my own family relates back to Limerick (of just 30 yrs prior to McCourt’s; and the other half to County Cork next door); the promise of “America” rings through and helps me understand what my forefathers must have been suffering in order to make them leave when they did. And I suspect they had circumstances about as desperate. We’re lucky to be in America.

The damn book makes me feel incredibly rich even though by contemporary American standards we’re not. But compared to 1930s Limerick, Ireland, we’re magnates.

Incredible book. Five stars. I hope everyone reads it. Or even better listens to it on audio, because then you get Frank McCourt’s voice as well.