By Frank McCourt
Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1996
“Not for the faint-hearted” is perhaps over-used, but in the case of Frank McCourt’s memoir of his growing up years, Angela’s Ashes, it is apt. (“Angela” is his mother’s name.)
The son of an alcoholic Irish man, McCourt paints a gritty picture without a brush of self-pity. The prose is genuine and so gritty you can almost hear McCourt’s brogue singing through each page as he recounts life in a tumbledown shack on “the lane” in Ireland that floods and freezes in winter and swarms with fleas and stink in the summer.
His story begins in America, but soon high-tails it back to Ireland, where he details a professional unemployed father, grim family members, the loss of a baby sister, two twin boys, “the hunger” as well as the “Angel on the Seventh Step.” It’s all there – the almost unbelievable poverty, hunger, filth, disease, despair, religious superstition.
In spite of a childhood chockfull of incredible hardship, deprivation, cruelty and misery, there’s something transcendent and luminescent about McCourt’s story. Even with typhoid fever, “the shame,” and his father’s habit of “drinking his wages on the pint,” McCourt refuses to sink into a slough of despond or bitterness. Plucky Frank (short for Francis, “after the saint”) pulls himself up by own bootstraps and does so in an engaging, almost lyrical manner that’ll have you cheering – and perhaps shedding a tear or two – by the end of this remarkable, heart-breakingly heroic Pulitzer Prize Winner.