Angela's Ashes


Frank McCourt




Date Reviewed:

October 14, 2009

saw an recent obituary for Frank McCourt, and it reminded me that I always meant to read his autobiography, Angela's Ashes. It won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. This book is the first in a three volume set, it covers McCourt's poverty stricken childhood in Ireland, the two other volumes ('Tis and Teacher Man) cover his adult life in the USA.

If the title is explained some where inside the book, then I missed that paragraph. Angela is his mother's name; at first I thought it referred to her cremation, but his mother is still alive at the end of the book. Is McCourt referring to the ashes of her hopes and dreams? Or the ashes rubbed onto the forehead at the beginning of Lent?

One curious aspect of this book is that McCourt never tells you how he feels about other people. We hear his conversations with the people around him, but not what he thinks of them. I was especially curious what he thought of his drunken father. McCourt's father implores his sons to fight for a free Ireland (and teaches them to hate the British), he sings them patriotic songs and treats them kindly when he can. But McCourt can not hold a job because he is an alcoholic, his drinking dooms his family to abject poverty - the horrifying circumstances that Frank grows up in are directly a result of his father's behavior. The family lives on the dole, but his father drinks the dole money too, while his children starve and freeze. Does Frank love his father? Does he hate him? I have no idea, even though I read the entire book.

One of the saddest things reported in this narrative is the behavior of most of the adults in this book toward the young McCourt. Teachers, priests, nuns, any figure of authority - almost all of them treat the young boy with outright cruelty or indifference. Because Frank's father grew up in northern Ireland (the story takes place in Limerick, which is in southwestern Ireland), the children are treated as pariah outcasts. The behavior of his grandmother and aunt is the worst - his own relatives are willing to let Frank and his family grow up in squalor and starvation.

The living conditions that Frank grows up in are as bad as can be imagined. Rats, disease, flies, starvation, cold - the appalling surroundings kill off several of his siblings, and put Frank into the hospital several times with nearly fatal illnesses. But despite what we learn in this book, it is not depressing reading. McCourt somehow keeps the narrative interesting without overwhelming the reader with the bleakness of his story. Once I started this book, I pretty much read it straight through to the end - often times I read two or three books simultaneously, picking up one the books each evening before going to bed. Once I started Angela's Ashes, I always selected it as the book-of-the-evening until I had finished it.