This absorbing, sad, humorous evocation of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood describes the first nineteen years of Frank McCourt’s life--from his birth in Brooklyn, New York; through the family’s emigration four years later to his mother’s roots in the slums of Limerick, Ireland--and ends with McCourt’s return migration to America, a young man on his own. McCourt sets the scene in his first lines: "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. . . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters . . . . "

Born during the Great Depression, the author leads us in lilting present-tense narrative through the struggle and occasional small joys of daily life with siblings, school friends, and the adults who circumscribe his life. He is an alien in his parental homeland, the oldest child of a father whose background in "the North" engenders continual suspicion, and a mother (Angela of the book’s title) who had never known her father and whose own mother is as miserly with her affections as with offers of economic assistance.

The hardships in Limerick are so profound that starvation is a way of life. "Consumption," pneumonia, and typhoid are rampant; children go to school barefoot or in pieces of flopping rubber; stealing is a necessity. Frank’s tiny sister and twin brothers die. Above all, there is "the drink"--the endemic disease of Irish fathers who spend their weeks’ wages in the pub on Friday night.

Frank leaves school to earn money for the family (his father had joined the war-time wave of work in England, but continued to drink his earnings away), and to save for a return to America. Blessed with verbal skills and stamina, through stealth, charm and struggle he manages to save what is needed to book ship’s passage to America. As the Hudson River flows by en route to Albany, the ship’s Wireless Officer says to Frank, "My God, . . . isn’t this a great country altogether?" Answers Frank in the single phrase comprising the last chapter, " ’T. is."


McCourt taught writing at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City for many years. This is his first published book. It is masterfully crafted, its present-tense narration skillfully enveloping the reader in the child-author’s daily life, language, and surrounding culture.

One might well question how McCourt (and others who have lived through similar childhood miseries) come through life with such energy and little bitterness. One of several remarkable characteristics of this memoir is the humor that persists in spite of great sadness and hardship. Humor, it seems, confers physical as well as psychic benefits.

Another factor in McCourt’s favor is the love with which he was reared by both parents. Frank’s father was an alcoholic but he was not an abuser--he loved his children and they knew it. In the sober mornings, he read the paper and talked politics and history with Frank: "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey . . . . " (p.210)

The Irish and family tradition of story-telling was an important element in McCourt’s life. Telling stories was a way of remaining human under inhuman conditions. Reading--the route to an inner life of stories--was equally important. He discovered Shakespeare at age ten while confined to hospital, after almost dying of typhoid. ". . . it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year." This is a wonderful memoir--a study in resiliency, a cultural primer, a testament to the human spirit.


Angela’s Ashes won the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize (biography categories).



Place Published

New York



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