February 2020 – Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
Sometimes our vantage point from 2020 obscures how little time has passed since the world was a very different place. Especially here in the United States in a solidly first-world country, 1920 seems much farther away than 100 years. The standard of living for most in this country is leaps and bounds beyond the days of outdoor privies, no running water, no electric light. Perhaps our grandparents have shared their memories of those times, but as demanding and challenging as their childhoods may have been, they likely never reached the depths of poverty and deprivation that author Frank McCourt endured in the slums of Limerick, Ireland in the 1930’s. He recounts that childhood in great detail in Angela’s Ashes which Zion’s Book Club chose as its February selection.
Mr. McCourt actually was born in the United States of Irish parents who, during the Depression, decided to return to the old country. It was a fateful decision that set in motion the decline of a once happy family unit. McCourt’s two brothers died, then a sister passed away shortly after birth. His Irish grandmother was less than sympathetic and unable or unwilling to be of much monetary help. She actively disliked McCourt’s father, Malachy, who hailed from Northern Ireland, and felt her daughter, Angela, made a poor choice of spouse. Eventually, Malachy succumbed to alcohol and proceeded to drink away his pay when he managed to find and hold a job. The family’s living quarters went from bad to worse, finally landing in the last of a row of primitive dwellings down a lane that ended at the public outdoor bathroom facility. The stench and overflow, the prevalence of disease, the hunger, the lack of adequate clothing, and the inhuman treatment of the poor were Frank’s day-in and day-out environment. Limerick slums were third-world places in the early 1900’s.
Malachy’s Irish folk stories with which he entertained Frank were the one bright spot and gave Frank a sense of identity. That lasted until his father went to England, ostensibly to earn money to send back to his family although it never materialized. No longer needing to coax his father from the bars and pubs was balanced against having to navigate the pecking order in the Catholic boys school as well as care for his remaining and new siblings and augment his mother’s scant income. Overall loomed the Catholic church and the guilt it heaped on its members. His mother’s embarrassment and humiliation at going to the local clothing bank and food pantry seared his consciousness. His own embarrassment that his mother essentially paid their rent with her body when they moved to a different house was difficult to swallow while he began to understand the blossoming of his own sexuality and “excitements”. That he could find humor in his circumstances speaks to a great well of resilience deep within him. His determination to return to America and take advantage of the opportunities there had to feed him emotionally when his belly was empty.
Our readers found this book to be at once depressing and exhilarating; it ran the readers through the full range of emotions. They found Mr. McCourt’s writing style to be easily readable and appreciated his wonderful descriptions and humor. The author was not passing judgment but simply recounting his reality. From our 21st century view, many of our readers’ first comments about the book centered on wanting to strangle the father. How on earth could he drink away his children’s food and shelter? Why didn’t Frank’s mother, Angela, stand up to him? Here is that hundred-year distance again, insulating us from a time when it was a man’s world where women had little to no standing. They were not allowed to have bank accounts; employers would not necessarily turn over the husband’s pay to the wife; society and the church reinforced the place of women in the home. The time gap also reveals that addiction was nothing new although it focused on alcohol rather than pills.
The North-South divide along Protestant and Catholic lines is also vividly portrayed with Malachy supposedly having a definitive accent and “an odd” look about him due to his Northern Irish heritage. The intolerance and hatred born and bred into young psyches and the constant lament of “800 years of oppression” gave us insight into the mindset that would lead to “the troubles” later in the 20th century. It also raised the concern of what might happen in the present day with the hard exit of Great Britain and, thus, Ireland from the European Union and the possible re-establishment of border barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If the tenuous bonds that hold Ireland to Britain unravel in the aftermath of Brexit, will the gains of the last 100 years explode into a repeat of the troubles with another generation of Irish children caught in the middle? We certainly hope not.
Playing a large role in young Frank’s life, the rituals of the Catholic Church including the rite of Confession and the penance pronounced by the priest, held a fascination for our readers. The mortal and venial levels of sin, the state of Limbo, and the choice by some to confess sins one week and go out and repeat them the next week were all of interest. For one reader, a former Catholic, McCourt’s religious experiences resonated greatly, especially his school days and the push to read the lives of the saints (which often entailed gory details of the church’s martyrs). While some of the Irish songs and poems quoted by McCourt were of little interest to our readers, this one could remember memorizing the same poem young Frank had to learn by rote.
McCourt’s choice of titles was interesting. Many times over the years, Frank portrayed Angela staring at the cold ashes in the fireplace, whether searching for inspiration or seeing the detritus of a life that once held promise we never knew. While it might have been implied from the title that McCourt’s mother had passed away, that was not the case. We were intrigued to learn that she eventually followed him to the U.S., even turning up at one of his lectures to protest that the book was full of lies. If the stories were somewhat embellished, Angela’s Ashes still showcased an easy writing style and vivid descriptions that were a pleasure to read. It’s one drawback according to one of our readers was that it reinforced the stereotype of the Irish – poor, prisoners of the Catholic Church, and prone to alcoholism. Yet that stereotype was Frank McCourt’s reality, and to rise above it was a great achievement. Our votes reflected our appreciation for his life story – one reader gave it 1-1/2 thumbs up, 10 felt it deserved 1 thumb up, two indicated a knuckle, and one reader was neutral. It was also mentioned that a movie was made of the story that fell far short of the mark, with wooden characters. However, if you enjoy books on cd, you can find a set of Frank reading his own work with an Irish brogue that evidently greatly enhances the humor in his words and is totally delightful. His continuing memoir ‘Tis picks up where Angela’s Ashes stops. Teacher Man covers McCourt’s experiences teaching at various schools in New York City.
In March, Zion’s Book Club turns its attention to Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.