"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it 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." - The opening to "Angela's Ashes."
When I read those opening passages to Angela's Ashes, I knew that I was in for something different. I had been desiring to read Frank McCourt's memoir of life growing up in Limerick for some time. I kept hearing as to how wonderful the book was, how haunting and yet how funny at the same time. I just never seemed to be able to find the time, or to remember to buy the book. Then, as these things happen, something came up that made me realize that I should go and read it.
Frank McCourt upped and died. The nerve he had.
Once that happened, I knew I had to get the book, and received it before I could go buy it as a 50th birthday present from Mrs. Nighttime. By the time I finished the first page, even then, I knew that this was a style of writing that I had never encountered before. His prose for the most part, in the first person, takes us through his journey first from the streets of Brooklyn, where he was born, to his eventual return to his parents homeland of Ireland.
As I got further and further into the story, I marveled at McCourt's ability to first of all, recall so many incidents in his childhood, especially from such a young age, as well as his ability to paint a picture of poverty that is unknown to many Americans, save for perhaps some segments of Appalachia. Even in the ghettos of Brooklyn where I worked, people were far better off then the horrific conditions that McCourt describes.
"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 father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying school masters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. Above all -- we were wet."
But, what was most telling, in that very Irish way, was his ability to weave in humor amongst the most tragic elements of his life. Even when there is so much vitriol lobbed against his relatives, his school teachers, the priests and the Catholic church in general, there are moments that simply make you cry out with laughter. It is the salve for the words that are like wounds.
"Grandma's next door neighbor, Mrs. Purcell has the only wireless in the lane. The government gave it to her because she's old and blind. I want a radio. My grandmother's old but she's not blind and what's the use of having a grandmother who won't go blind and get a government radio?"
There was, as one might expect, a backlash against McCourt's description of life during this time, which was from the 1930's, through the late 1940's. As bad as the depression was here in the U.S., it seems to have hit Ireland even harder. There are those however, that said McCourt's descriptions are far from the truth, and accused him of blatantly misrepresenting the Irish, and at worst, playing into the usual stereotypes of the drunken, slovenly, lazy Irish family, especially the husband/father type.
I would have to agree with those that go against those that doth protest too much. This is one man's account of life as he experienced it. It is not an autobiography, but a memoir. Most of the criticism I have read about were from those who were either not in Ireland at the time portrayed in the book, and were relying on second hand information from relatives, or from those who were from Ireland, but not alive at that time. McCourt has been accused of simply inventing or embellishing his story for the sake of money. McCourt was in his mid-60's when he wrote and published Angela's Ashes. If he wanted to make make his fortune, I would suspect he would have done it a lot earlier. As he has stated in interviews, it took him a long time to come to terms with his childhood, and perhaps this explains why it took him so many years to be able to express these things as he did.
I finished the book a few days ago, and have now started on the sequel, "Tis'." I cannot wait to see what wonders McCourt will paint with words in this follow-up.