Frank McCourt had one astonishing life. In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, McCourt recounts his tumultuous upbringing in glaring and finite detail. Replete with minute and harrowing details about his treacherous youth, Ashes will leave you gasping, crying, and laughing throughout its pages.
The main elements of his life that McCourt seems to focus on are the relationships he has with his flaky and eccentric father, as well as the close, though taunt, one with his mother. We are also treated to poignant and often absurd thoughts on McCourt’s beloved and loathed home of Limerick, Ireland during the late 30’s and early 40’s, as well as the role Catholicism played in his day to day life during this time. The best part, it’s told from a child’s point of view. More precisely, it is McCourt’s view of the world as a young boy; a youth who is struggling to carve out his own path in an often hostile and endlessly perplexing environment.
Young Frank’s father, Malachy McCourt, is one strange bird to say the least. His idea of a good time is to take all the money he has earned that week, blow it at all at the pub getting sauced, come home stinking drunk singing songs of Ireland’s glorious fighting past, and corral Frank and all his brothers out of bed so that they may pledge – to the death – their allegiance to Ireland and no one else. Malachy cannot control his drinking. In a particularly low point in his addiction, he even sells his recently deceased daughter’s baby corpse to people who “do experiments on them” in exchange for drinking money. I’m not sure it’s possible to get much lower than that.
The family leaves New York City for the greener pastures of Limerick, in the South of Ireland. The family hopes that Malachy will be able to find steady work there, and with steady work (hopefully) sobriety will follow. As you might guess, Malachy never really sobers up and the family moves deeper and deeper into poverty. This is not to say that Malachy did not love his family, he did. A man that will suck out the coagulated insides of his sick infant’s nose surely cares for his family. He was just a waif carried on by the wind, and the wind eventually led him to England to work in a factory from which he never fully returned, save for a few brief instances that led to absolutely nothing. The burden to keep the family going was never on Malachy’s head anyway. That illustrious job was for mom, Angela.
Angela McCourt is a trooper. She will do just about anything to keep her kin with her and alive. Death is something that she has dealt with far too often. With the passing of her daughter Margaret, her son Oliver, his twin brother Eugene, and her husband’s un-ceremonial exit from the family, Angela became as tough as leather.
She waits in line for food coupons from the St. Vincent de Paul society, vowing never to go lower than that to get food, which means visiting the local Dispensary, which she inevitably does. She moves the family from house, to house, to house, etc… all in hopes of giving her loved ones (and herself) some better quality of living than they had before.
At one of these houses, she sleeps with her benefactor, a disgusting man named Laman Griffin. This may seem like a base and vile act, but I argue Angela is doing the only thing left that she can do to save her family from the streets. Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t see it like that and sets off on his own.
Frank thinks that Laman Griffin is “not in a state of grace after the excitement [with his mother] and he’s going to hell.” In fact, Frank has many thoughts on religion. How could he not though? The morals and ethics on Limerick were all based upon Catholicism. McCourt’s meanderings on religious acts and practices are sometimes extremely funny. When young Frank receives his First Communion, he has a bit of trouble with the wafer: “It’s on my tongue. I draw it back. It stuck. I had God glued to the roof of my mouth.” Or afterwards, when he throws up his First Communion breakfast, his Grandma cries “Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in my backyard.” Other times, though, Frank’s Catholic beliefs leave him cold, sad, and self-loathing.
Frank loses his virginity to Theresa Carmody, who’s a young lady that is shut-in by her “walking consumption.” Shortly after this, Theresa dies and Frank feels responsible for sending her soul to hell. He thinks “Theresa is a torment to me…Every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me…There he is, there’s Frank McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell.” He’s confused about his burgeoning sexuality (he’s a teenager now), even afraid to confess his “sins” to the local Priests. He says they’re always preaching about “millstones and the doom,” and that he “will have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea” for his transgressions. The culture of Ireland just ain’t right for Frank; America is the place for him, and he scrounges and saves, and eventually makes it back to the land where he was born.
I wanted Frank to leave Ireland – I needed Frank to leave Ireland. I believe McCourt’s first-person style, from his younger self’s point of view, made me feel like I was Frank’s closest friend and confidant. Basically, when Frank was leaving Ireland for good, I was leaving Ireland for good. I really got wrapped up in Frank’s character and felt emotionally invested in his plight. It’s no wonder the book won the Pulitzer Prize – it’s an absolute treasure.
I wonder if, when McCourt received his Pulitzer, he felt that he’d finally killed all those Jackdaws hovering over Oliver’s grave. After all, this whole memoir is a field of mocking Jackdaws attempting to harangue Frank into a life he was never intended to live, or into a grave he was never meant to fill. I think that bag of rocks is empty now Mr. McCourt, and the graveyard is, indeed, littered with the fallen Jackdaws of your past.
Oh, and what’s a Jackdaw? I can’t give everything away, now can I…