Book Review of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Updated on June 21, 2018
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

Photo of book Angela's Ashes on a coffee table
Photo of book Angela's Ashes on a coffee table | Source

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 a 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 spending 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.

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Hunger

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 dads 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.

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A pig headPotatoesCabbage
A pig head
A pig head | Source
Potatoes
Potatoes | Source
Cabbage
Cabbage | Source

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 approach 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.

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.

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Chamber pot
Chamber pot
Chamber pot | Source
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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. | Source

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.

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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.

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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 last.

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Has the effects of alcoholism ever affected you or others you know?

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Angela's Ashes: A Memoir
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

Trust me! If you read this powerfully written book you will never forget it.

This is a personal story of surviving unbelievable childhood miseries including extreme hunger, poverty and abuse while living in Ireland. While that sounds horrific, there is also humor mixed into the pages of this book.

Defying all odds this story showcases Frank McCourt as a child navigating his way through his early childhood with all the adventures and misadventures until his eventual escape to America and the beginning of his new life.

 

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Peggy Woods

    Comments

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      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        2 weeks ago

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Robert,

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

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        2 weeks ago

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

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 jolly profile image

        Rajan Singh Jolly 

        2 weeks ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

        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 profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        2 weeks ago

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

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 profile image

        William F Torpey 

        2 weeks ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

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

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Ethel,

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

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        2 weeks ago

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

      • ethel smith profile image

        Ethel Smith 

        2 weeks ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 

        6 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        8 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        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.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        8 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

        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!

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        8 weeks ago from sunny Florida

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

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        8 weeks ago from sunny Florida

        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 contents...you told enough to make me want to read more. Angels are on the way this evening ps

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 profile image

        manatita44 

        8 weeks ago from london

        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.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        8 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        8 weeks ago from Brazil

        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.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        8 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

        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 profile image

        Frank Atanacio 

        8 weeks ago from Shelton

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • Glenis Rix profile image

        GlenR 

        8 weeks ago from UK

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Nithya,

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

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        8 weeks ago from Dubai

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

      • William F. Torpey profile image

        William F Torpey 

        8 weeks ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        8 weeks ago from USA

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        8 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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 W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        8 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        8 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

        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 profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        8 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

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

        Such a shame of a father like this. Just no excuse and worse yet when a woman feels tied with no choice.

        Thanks for sharing. I will try to pick this up to read.

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