I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir. I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.
I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child. His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.
The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive. Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.
One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about. The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific. Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable. Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.
It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level. Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse. It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.
Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare. Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life. Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.
There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over. Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.
I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t. I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.