Book Review of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 last.
Has the effects of alcoholism ever affected you or others you know?
© 2018 Peggy Woods