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Book Review of "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

Photo of book Angela's Ashes on a coffee table

Photo of book Angela's Ashes on a coffee table

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Little did I know when I selected this hardback book at a library in Bellaire, Texas that it would be hard to put down once I started reading it. One of several books that I purchased that day—this one is a definite page-turner!

Another thing of which I was unaware was that the author of Angela's Ashes won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoir. That is amazing particularly because it was Frank McCourt's first book! A National Book Critics Circle Award plus an L.A. Times Book Award were also given to him for writing this memorable book.

This story starts out in America with fairly recent Irish immigrants. Angela is the name of the author's mother. When she becomes pregnant, her Catholic family insists upon a marriage. Unfortunately for her, she married a man who was an alcoholic.

Malachy, who is the author's father, seldom holds down a job. When he does occasionally earn some wages, most of the time he ends up using the money for liquor.

Frank was born in Brooklyn during the Depression era. His parents move to Ireland where there are more relatives who might be of help. Most of the story continues from that vantage point.



The McCourt family in Ireland does not exactly welcome them with open arms. In fact the opposite is true. Their situation continues to deteriorate as the family keeps growing with ever more mouths to feed. Some of Frank's siblings die.

While some families whose fathers bring home regular paychecks celebrate with good food on the table, Angela has to accept charity. It is very demeaning for her to have to ask for assistance with food. A pig's head, a few potatoes and a cabbage make up one such meal for a Christmas celebration. At least they had food to eat that time and they relished it.

There are many days and nights when there is no food. Frank describes licking a newspaper that at one time held food just to get a hint of flavor from it. That filled his imagination more than his belly.

Living on the Dole

According to Wikipedia "The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP or SVdP or SSVP) is an international voluntary organization in the Catholic Church, founded in 1833 for the sanctification of its members by personal service of the poor."

Angela is the one who has to continually approached that charitable organization for help with not only food but used furnishings as well. Her husband Malachy refuses to be put in that position despite being the cause of most of their misery. A minimum of used furniture is given to them. Sharing a mattress and waking up with flea welts all over their bodies is one of Frank's memories.

They also receive a few shillings for help with lodgings from the Labour Exchange while on the dole. At one point they live at the end of a lane.

Chamber pots are used in lieu of toilets. Sadly they find out that everyone's pots are dumped at a lavatory location outside of where they reside. Warmer weather just enhances the malodorous smells just outside of their door. Making things even worse is the fact of the place flooding downstairs when it rains. Water comes right under the obviously ill-fitted door into the room.

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Moving upstairs to what they call "Italy" helps keep them drier and a bit further away from the sewer-like smells wafting outside their lodging.

Cooking and Keeping Warm

Fuel is needed to stoke a fire to be able to boil water for tea or cook an onion or potato. It also helps to heat a room. Coal was typically utilized back then. That also becomes a problem when there is no money to pay for it.

Some bits of coal would spill off of delivery wagons as it was being delivered down bumpy streets to paying customers. Frank, along with his mother and siblings, would frequently walk along the streets hoping to pick up some of that scattered coal.

Horse droppings could have also been used for this purpose but pride kept Angela from doing that. Other people in dire situations would keep the streets cleared even of those!

The situation becomes so bad at one point that they burn some of their wooden furniture in order to keep warm.

Looking for any bits of coal that might have fallen off of a wagon.

Looking for any bits of coal that might have fallen off of a wagon.

School, Typhoid, Religion and Sex

There are vivid descriptions of school days and interactions with Frank's school chums, other kids in the neighborhood and his teachers.

Coming down with typhoid actually puts him in a hospital setting for a time where he has his own bed in which to sleep, clothing to wear and enough food to eat.

His Catholic religious training and how it affected him is also addressed. Some of what he learns from those experiences as a child is actually a bit humorous, particularly his first sexual encounter and how he thought he had sent Theresa to hell when she died.


Telegram and Newspaper Delivery Boy

Despite his eyes (read more about that in the book), pimples and ragged clothing, Frank gets a job riding a bicycle delivering telegrams. Later he delivers magazines and newspapers.

Young Frank meets interesting people along the way. For one of those individuals, he ends up being paid a few extra coins to write threatening letters to people who owe her money.

At age 19, his dream of escaping Ireland and poverty by going to America is finally accomplished. Frank's meager savings are suddenly given that final boost needed to pay his passage at the end in an unexpected manner.

Alcoholism and Poverty

One of the main themes running through the pages of this book is how Frank's entire family was adversely affected by his father's alcoholism. It portrays a sad journey down into the very bowels of extreme poverty. Despite the destitution and squalor, there is always hope and glimpses of happiness although the latter was most often temporary at best.

Tales of the Angel on the Seventh Step who brings his mother more babies and Cuchulain are stories from his father that beguile Frank. His dad singing the song Kevin Barry is often heard when he comes home drunk. Making his kids promise to "die for Ireland" is regularly demanded.

If this was fiction, it would make an amazing story. What makes it even more riveting and incredible is that it is a factual account of Frank's memories while growing up. It is a masterpiece that will enthrall readers from the first page to the very last.


For Additional Reading:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Peggy Woods


Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 20, 2020:

Hi justmesuzanne,

That is good to know. It is the first book by Frank McCourt that I have read.

justmesuzanne from Texas on March 20, 2020:

I so enjoyed this book and the movie. It was definitely Frank McCourt's best. I read several of his other books, and they paled by comparison.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 08, 2019:

Hi John,

Like you, I have many books on hand that are not yet read. It is nice to be able to pick up a book when one has the time without having to search for one. If reading this review got your attention, I will consider my writing a success. Heading over to read one of yours now.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 07, 2019:

What a wonderful review, Peg. I actually have this book in my collection but am now ashamed to say I still haven't read it. I am sure I even have the sequel packed away somewhere. I will ensure I read this sooner rather than later. (p.s. the poems you requested about 'the weather' and 'long lost friends' can be found in Poems From the Porch 4 which I have published.)

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 01, 2019:

It is indeed!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 01, 2019:

Hi Mary,

Thanks for letting me know that you enjoyed my book review of Angela's Ashes and that it resurrected memories of reading it years ago. It is a powerfully written book!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 01, 2019:

Peggy, I truly enjoyed this book but I read it years ago and your review brought me back to appreciate the novel more.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on April 13, 2019:

Hi Dale,

Angela's Ashes is such an interesting book. I am sure that you will enjoy reading it while you are on the high seas.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on April 12, 2019:

I have heard of this book before but, for whatever reason, I have never read it. Based ion your feedback here I think I will give it a shot. I live on a boat with no TV so I have plenty of time to read.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 25, 2019:

Greetings Umesh Chandra Bhatt,

If you already read the book, Angela's Ashes, then I appreciate the compliment of a good book review. This book has an impact! Thanks for your comment.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 24, 2019:

A good review. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 19, 2018:

Hi Patricia,

This is a hard book to put down once one starts reading it. Sending good thoughts and prayers your way.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 19, 2018:

Hi...just had to get back to you to let you know I did read this. It was one of those books rhat i found difficult to put down. I have a family member who battles alcohol's snare daily. Thank you for sharing. Angels are on tje

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 09, 2018:

Hi Thelma,

It is interesting that you actually got to visit the place of the author's youth. I have not read the book you mentioned but made a note of it and intend to do so. Thanks for the recommendation.

Thelma Alberts from Germany on October 08, 2018:

Peggy, this is a wonderful review of Angela's Ashes. I have read that book and it was indeed hard to put it away. Life of the author was very sad and depressing though there was always hope in everything that Frank did in Ireland. I have also seen the movie of this book after reading the book. When we were living in Ireland for a few years, my hubby and I visited Limerick the place where the author experienced the hardships of life with his family. Have you read the Teacher Man of Franck McCourt? Very funny and a brilliant book about his life as a teacher in New York.

Thanks for reminding me this book.

Robert Sacchi on August 03, 2018:

It does seem to show no matter how bad we think we have it here there are many others somewhere else who have it much worse.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 03, 2018:

Hi Robert,

It certainly was not a good move for the family of Frank McCourt, the author of this book.

Robert Sacchi on August 02, 2018:

It does seem the move from America to Ireland was not a good move.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 02, 2018:

Hi Rajan,

Most times books are better than movies made from them. At least that is my experience if I have read a book and then seen the movie based upon it. Details are often lost. Hope you get the chance to read Angela's Ashes.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 02, 2018:

Hi Robert,

It is no wonder after reading this book that so many Irish people sought to come to America. It ultimately worked out well for the author of this book.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on August 02, 2018:

Very engrossing review! A very gripping real-life story. I will certainly be looking out for this book. I believe a film has been made based on this book.

Robert Sacchi on August 01, 2018:

Yes, some stories. From what you described it was much worse in Ireland.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 01, 2018:

Hi William,

I agree that the conditions he lived in as a child were horrific. There is no other way to describe it. Angela's Ashes is an excellent book. I am glad that you recently got to read it.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 01, 2018:

Hi Robert,

This is truly a compelling story based on facts remembered by the author when he was growing up. I am sure you must have heard many stories about the Depression from your parents. It affected so many people in different ways.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on July 31, 2018:

Finally read Angela's Ashes (recently.) Excellent book, but so sad that people have to live under such horrid circumstances.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 31, 2018:

Hi Ethel,

I agree with you that Angela's Ashes is a gripping story.

Robert Sacchi on July 31, 2018:

it seems a compelling story. My parents grew up during the depression in Brooklyn.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on July 31, 2018:

Long time since I read this book and watched the movie, but enjoyed both.

Enjoy not really the right word but the book is so wee written. A gripping story

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 04, 2018:

Hi Catherine,

This book truly is unforgettable. It must have been quite an experience listening to the author's voice when he was reading his own finely crafted book.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on July 04, 2018:

I can see you enjoyed "Angela's Ashes" as much as I did. The author tells his story honestly without embellishment. The story is moving and unforgettable. I actually read this book by listening on the CD. The book was read by the author. His voice and Irish accent made the story all the more memorable.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2018:

Hi Pamela,

Hopefully this book is available for your Kindle reading pleasure. I feel certain that you would enjoy it. It is an important book and one that I was happy to review.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2018:

Hi Chitrangada,

This book surely does teach some valuable life lessons. It also portrays the human spirit while navigating in dire circumstances. Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2018:

Hi Patricia,

I hope your library has the book Angela's Ashes. I have already given my copy away or I could have mailed it to you. Am sure you will be able to find it somewhere.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 24, 2018:

Hi Peggy, I love to read, and this book sounds very good. I will check first and see if I can buy it for my Kindle. You gave enough details about the book to make me want to start reading! This was a very good review.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 24, 2018:

Sounds like a gripping story and you have written a wonderful review.

I would love to read this one, which obviously has some great lessons for life.

Thanks for sharing!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 24, 2018:

Heading to the library this is open only a few hours on Sunday. Can't wait. Angels headed to you this morning ps

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi Patricia,

Hopefully you can find a copy in your local library. It is definitely a page turner! Sending hugs, good wishes and angels your way.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 23, 2018:

Peggy....this does sound like a page-turner. I will see if I can find a copy at the library. You have certainly peeked my interest with this detailed description of its told enough to make me want to read more. Angels are on the way this evening ps

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi manatita,

You are correct in that there are stories to be told almost everywhere people live. This one certainly captures one told well by the author who survived such a rough start in his life.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi Linda,

The memories of Frank describe living in extreme poverty that is almost unfathomable to most of us. To think that anyone has ever had to suffer through such things is sad to say the least. Nice to know that he was a survivor. His goal in reaching the United States was not only to improve his own situation but also to be able to help his family as well.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi Mary,

It is certainly a serious book. It is amazing how Frank and his family actually survived all of those experiences. Of course some of his siblings did not make it. Those awards for the book were well deserved.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi Peg,

As an author I believe that you would truly enjoy reading this book to not only be informed about what happened but also to gain insight as to the captivating writing style of Frank McCourt. You are correct in thinking that sometimes we need to be reminded of just how good most of us have it in comparison to others.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Hi Frank,

I can certainly understand why you still remember this book after reading it several years ago. It is a hard book to forget!

manatita44 from london on June 23, 2018:

It is a story of poverty and fortitude in times of strife and difficulty, it seems. You portray it well, I believe, although I have not read it. Since he has won the Pullitzer Prize, then he must be good. Interesting title, but vague until you brought it to life. Probably dear, very dear to Frank Mc Court.

It is, for me, a great learning experience to know that we all have a story to tell. Some worse that others, but to each, his/her own is very real! Thank you so much for this Peggy. You shared a lot in a short space.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 22, 2018:

I've heard of the movie based on this book, but I've never seen the movie or read the book. Thanks for sharing the great review, Peggy. The book sounds very interesting, even though it might be hard to read because it's telling a true story of poverty.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on June 22, 2018:

I read this some time ago. In fact, I even mentioned it to my sister. I told her about how depressing and sad it was, and that I felt every time I turned the page, another baby would die.

She suggested I read something more uplifting.

It is a wonderful book and painfully honest about such a hard time, many of us can never imagine.

The award was deserved.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on June 22, 2018:

This sounds like a gripping tale of how the characters dealt with true poverty and hardship. Sometimes it's good to read this kind of story to remind us of how well most of us have it. From your excellent review, I would like to read this book.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on June 22, 2018:

Peggy, yes this dynamic book of dysfunctional times really is a must read, I read it several years ago and I still remember as the accounts stayed on my mind.. thanks for bringing it up again..bless you

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 22, 2018:

Hi GlenR,

Although I did not see the movie perhaps that is why when I saw the title of this book it was somehow familiar to me. Perhaps I saw ads for the movie. We don't go to many movies. I will just bet that the book is even better than the movie. Most of them are.

Glen Rix from UK on June 22, 2018:

I read this some years ago. Highly recommend. It was made into a film, which is worth viewing. I imagine the dvd is on Amazon.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 22, 2018:

Hi Nithya,

If my review makes you wish to read this book then I have done my job. Thanks!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 22, 2018:

Hi William,

I am certain that you will enjoy reading this book. There are so many wonderful classics that it would take a lifetime to read all of them.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on June 22, 2018:

After reading your review I am drawn in, will be reading this book. Great review.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 22, 2018:

I am presently catching up on reading all the classic books I haven't gottten around to read so I very much appreciate your review of Angela Ashes (which is next on my list.) I am currently reading "The Stand" by Stephen King (1152 pages.) Thanks, Peggy !!!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 22, 2018:

Hi FlourishAnyway,

I can truly understand why people who have been affected by alcoholic spouses might find this book hard to read. The depths of poverty that this family experienced and the feelings of degradation were eye opening and amazing. Yet the grit and determination of young Frank to get out of that situation and help his family motivated him to keep going. It could have gone either way! Glad you liked my book review.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 21, 2018:

All that misery goes back to a young woman being forced to marry someone because of an unplanned pregnancy. In that respect there are so many stories that echo this one. I read the book several years back and was deeply touched and disturbed by it. My mother, however, went to read it and had to put it down. The theme of familial alcoholism hit too close to home for her, as her father and first husband were each violently abusive drunks. You’ve written a wonderful review.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 21, 2018:

Hi Mary,

Kids who experience this can go either way. Those that make it (like the author Frank McCourt) are obviously made stronger. Some kids have the inner strength to survive such obstacles in life while others do not.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 21, 2018:

Peggy, I am so sorry for kids who have to go through these miseries growing up. I don't know if it strengthens them or destroy them totally. Putting that aside, I will certainly read this book.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 21, 2018:

Hi Louise,

It is a fantastic book! Once you start reading it I am sure you will not want to put it down. Nice that you already own it.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 21, 2018:

Hi Jackie,

It is truly a gripping story! Frank McCourt is a terrific author. This was the first book of his that I have read. I would be tempted to read others from him after reading this one.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 21, 2018:

I've had this book on on my bookshelf for sometime now, but haven't got round to reading it yet. I really should start reading it, as it sounds gripping. Thanks for the article.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 21, 2018:

Does sound like a very good book, Peggy. Of course I have heard of this author but have not read.