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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Source: Borrowed from Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 460 pages
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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is a memoir about his young life and his coming of age.  The memoir does not gloss over the hardships he and his family face, nor does it leave out the bad things McCourt did as a child to survive.  It’s heartbreaking to see how a father can shun his responsibilities in favor of alcohol, while leaving his wife little recourse but to beg for charity on a weekly and daily basis just to feed her young children.  Angela, his mother, becomes a shadow of herself with the trials they face, especially as some of their youngest children perish from starvation and disease in America and even at home in Ireland.  Beginning in America, Angela meets a young man and falls in love, but he’s not the man she thinks he is and soon discovers that he is plagued by the need for drink.  Their hardships continue even as they are sent back to Ireland by relatives in the New World.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at 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.”  (page 9)

Living in a time when women were not allowed to work and when men were not expected to hand over their wages to their wives or to have their wives with them when they got paid — because his father takes the wages when he’s paid and eventually comes home with nothing — becomes a heavy burden on the family.  This leaves his wife to beg the grocer for credit so she can buy necessities for her family, and in Ireland it is worse because with a husband from the North, he’s unable to get a job in the first place.  Even when he does get a job, he often loses it by drinking late into the night and then sleeping in the next day.  These circumstances make it difficult for her and the family to stay healthy and even survive.

Although readers will be surprised at how long this family is able to survive in spite of the deaths and the starvation, they’ll also be surprised at the depth of their own loyalty and love for their father.  Rarely is anything said by the children about their father, though the mother surely speaks her mind about his penchant for the pint and his irresponsibility — to no avail.  McCourt pulls no punches about telling the darkest moments of his early life, including the beatings he took from teachers and family members.  There is still a sense of hope in him even in the most dire of circumstances.

Whether all of the things that happened in the memoir are fact or just his remembrances, there is clearly an atmosphere of struggle that has driven him to make the most of the circumstances he’s given.  He strives to do his best in school, to care for his family as best he can in the absence of his father, and to make something of himself in spite of all he must battle against.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is dark and hopeless at times, but there is the light of humor and hope between the lines.  This is a memoir that reads more like a novel.

About the Author:

Frank McCourt (1930-2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, “Angela’s Ashes,” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education.

This is my 4th and final book for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2013.

  • Let me know if you need to borrow ‘Tis. I have that one, too. I borrowed Teacher Man from you, I remember.

    This was a very dark story, but so well told. I was so angry with the father. The most memorable part, which has stayed with me in the years since I read this, is what happens to him after taking Communion.
    Anna´s last blog post ..Review: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

    • I think I bought Tis at the library sale ages ago. I did like Teacher Man a lot.

      I wanted to scream at them…sending the father to England to make money to send to them. I really couldn’t believe they still had faith in him after all they’d been through and seen.

  • I read this years ago and it’s still one of my favorites!
    Vicki´s last blog post ..Book Review: Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

  • I really liked this memoir when I read it. I cried. I laughed. It was an emotional roll coaster of a ride. I went on to read the author’s next book as well and, while I did not like it as much as this first one, I did find it enlightening as well.
    Literary Feline´s last blog post ..Cat Thursday: Aren’t I Handsome?

    • I actually read his book Teacher Man long ago, and had not read this one. I know there is another, Tis, that I haven’t read yet. I may get to that in 2014.
      Serena´s last blog post ..Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

  • I read this years ago and really liked it but did have my doubts that he could remember all the events he wrote about.
    bermudaonion (Kathy)´s last blog post ..Review: Someone Else’s Love Story

    • I think he must have asked his family members about those times when he was younger. That must have helped fill out his memories. I know I have vague memories of incidents that left an impression, but I could ask family members to fill in the blanks. Though this is told in a more fictional narrative way…so it’s harder to tell what he remembered and what he was told.
      Serena´s last blog post ..Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

  • I’ve yet to read this OR see the movie, but it is on my list. I need to make an effort to read it, despite the fact that it is dire.
    Sandy´s last blog post ..A few of my favorites of 2013…Young Adult

    • I’ve done both now…movie first, which I hate doing. But enough time passed between the two for me to enjoy the book (maybe enjoy is not the right word). As for you, I think you can handle this one since you’ve read a lot of WWII and Holocaust books.
      Serena´s last blog post ..Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

  • I found this to be a very emotional read. I know it has got rave reviews but I was so down after I read this book.
    Mystica´s last blog post ..GUN BEFORE BUTTER by NICOLAS FREELING

    • I think I was in the right frame of mind for this one. I think it made me see that things in my own life that were getting me down were not as bad as I felt they were.
      Serena´s last blog post ..Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt