Thursday, July 1, 2010
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 Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s amazing memoir of growing up in the direst poverty in Limerick, Ireland. The book opens in Brooklyn in 1935 when Frank, the eldest child, is only four. Frank’s father, Malachy, has decided life in his native Ireland, hard as it may be, would be easier than life in Brooklyn. So, with his wife, Angela and their four surviving children – Frank, Malachy, and twins, Oliver and Eugene, (baby sister, Margaret has already died) – in tow, the McCourt family returns to Malachy’s native Belfast.
One might think the return of a family member who’s been gone for years would be an occasion for rejoicing. But this is Belfast and war is brewing, and as the reader soon realizes, Malachy’s family is far worse off than the citizens of Brooklyn. After spending only one night in his family’s small home, Malachy, Angela, and their children are sent packing – to Limerick, the town where Angela grew up.
Angela’s family proves to be almost as unwelcoming as Malachy’s, but the family does manage to find lodgings in "the lanes," a euphemism for the town’s slums. And slums they are, make no mistake about that. There’s no sanitary system to speak of, so the McCourt family finds summers and the almost unbearable stench almost as bad as winters when there’s no coal to light the fire. The seemingly ever-present rain floods the McCourt’s downstairs, forcing them to flee to the upstairs rooms, and the dampness of the River Shannon kills two more McCourt children and sends Frank to the hospital for months. Although heartbroken, the McCourt’s accept their losses as simply their lot in a very, very difficult life.
The Protestant Malachy is shunned in Catholic Ireland and his northern accent makes it almost impossible for him to find work. When he does, he "drinks" his wages in the form of pints at the local pub before even going home, leaving his younger children with nothing but sugar water and the older ones lucky to get a potato for their dinner. Christmases consisted of a sheep’s head, which Angela obtained from local charities.
Angela’s Ashes is a horrific, but beautifully written book, an episodic memoir rather than a traditionally plotted novel. This episodic quality however, takes nothing away from its ability to mesmerize and pull us into the world of pre-war Limerick. We sympathize with Frank as he endures a series of abusive teachers – until he finally encounters one who recognizes his intelligence. We empathize with him as he finds – then tragically loses – his first love. We chuckle (yes, chuckle, for Angela’s Ashes, grim as it is, contains humor aplenty) at his misplaced attempts to spread Catholicism, one of which provides quite possibly the book’s funniest set piece.
Young Frank, during one of his first jobs must deliver a telegram to a Mr. Harrington, an Englishman who’s understandably distraught over the death of his wife, Ann. When Frank knocks on the Harrington’s door, Harrington is already drunk and asks Frank to watch over Ann’s body while he makes a quick trip to the local pub for reinforcements.
Frank has obviously listened to his strict Catholic schoolmasters and he obviously cares about his fellow man. In a hilarious scene, Frank, not wanting Ann to suffer in hell because of her Protestantism, baptizes her a Catholic with sherry in place of holy water. Naturally, just as he’s doing so, Harrington returns and bellows:
What the bloody hell are you doing? Get off my wife you wretched Papist twit. What primitive Paddy ritual is this? Did you touch her? Did you? I’ll wring your scrawny little neck!
Luckily, Frank’s able to climb out a window and make his escape unharmed.
While Angela’s Ashes is filled with tragedy, harrowing events, and the direst of poverty, it’s also filled with dignity, compassion, and genuine wit. This wit is, I think, what raises the book from a superbly written memoir to a genuine masterpiece and classic. But even though the book sometimes elicits a chuckle, more often than not, it brings a tear. One of the most harrowing images, for me, at least, was that of an always-hungry Frank voraciously licking the newspaper that had held his Uncle Pat’s fish and chips.
Just as McCourt does a fine balancing act regarding humor and despair, he also balances his characterizations so our view of the persons who inhabit Angela’s Ashes is never one-sided. This is particularly true regarding Frank’s father, Malachy. In the hands of a lesser author, Malachy could have become nothing more than exasperating and ineffectual, which, of course, he is. But McCourt also shows us his father’s charming side as well. As irresponsible as Malachy is, he obviously loves his children and it was their father, more often than not, who comforted his sons. It was Malachy who nurtured Frank’s appetite for stories, giving him the tale of Cuchulain, Ireland’s great savior, and the Angel on the Seventh Step, the being who brought two new babies, Michael and Alphonsus, to Angela. Perhaps because of Malachy, Frank somehow finds the strength to endure and nurture his own dreams. Angela’s Ashes is, in many ways, a Cinderella story, a story of triumph, although at first glance, it would seem to be anything but. More than anything, though, Angela’s Ashes is a perfectly written, deeply moving book. Although filled with tragedy and despair, in the end, it’s a glorious book, one that becomes a part of the reader and continues to grow within him years after the last page is turned. Don't wait years to read it like I did.