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Angela's Ashes (McCourt)

Angela's Ashes
Frank McCourt, 1996
Simon & Schuster
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780684842677


Summary 
Sometimes it's worth the wait. Having waited 40 years to tell his story, Frank McCourt doesn't pull any punches in his story of growing up dirt poor in Limerick, Ireland. Having emigrated to America, McCourt's family returns to Ireland after his sister dies in Brooklyn. It is there that things turn from bad to worse.

It is McCourt's contention that there is nothing worse than Irish Catholic poverty, and his book would seem to bear it out: his family moves to a row house in Limerick that is located next to the street's lavatory. However, the book is written in a lyrical style from the point of view of Frank McCourt as a boy, and it is still filled with the whimsy of growing up and the natural humor of its author.

While the book is often angry (at the Church, at his father, at his poverty, at his mother), it is also filled with forgiveness without bitterness. Covering the ages spanning three to 19, Angela's Ashes is the story of Frank McCourt's struggle to escape from poverty and a tale of Ireland still seemingly in the dark ages. Barred from the good schools because of his class, teeth falling out from malnutrition, and facing life with a shiftless alcoholic father, McCourt nevertheless survives on his wits and manages to return to America to start his life over. Again. It is a triumph of both the art of memoir writing and the author's spirit. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—August 19, 1930
 Death—July 19, 2009
 Where—Brooklyn, NY, USA
Education—B.A., New York University; M.A. Brooklyn College
Awards—Pulitzer Prize, 1997; National Book Critics Circle
  Award, 1996
Currently—New York, NY


Francis "Frank" McCourt was an Irish-American teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known as the author of Angela’s Ashes.

Frank McCourt was the eldest son of Malachy McCourt (1901-1986) and Angela Sheehan (1908-1981). Frank McCourt lived in New York with his parents and four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931; twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and a younger sister, Margaret, who died just a few weeks after birth, in 1935. Following this first tragedy, his family moved back to Ireland, where the twin brothers died within a year of the family's arrival and where Frank's youngest brothers, Michael (b. 1936) and Alphie (b. 1940), were born.

Unable to find steady work, in the depths of the depression, McCourts returned to their mother's native Limerick, Ireland in 1934, where they sank deeper into poverty. McCourt's father, from Toome in County Antrim, was often without work, but drank with the little money he did earn. When McCourt was eleven, his father left with other Irishmen to find work in the factories of wartime Coventry in England. His brothers Malachy McCourt and Alphie McCourt are also autobiographical writers. In the mid-1980s Francis and Malachy created the stage play A Couple of Blaguards, a two-man show about their lives and experiences.

He sent little money to the family, leaving Frank's mother to raise four surviving children, often by begging. Frank's public education ended at age 13, when the Congregation of Christian Brothers rejected him, despite a recommendation from his teacher. Frank then held odd jobs and stole bread and milk in an effort to provide for his mother and three surviving brothers, Malachy, Michael (who now lives in San Francisco), and Alphonsus ("Alphie") (who lives in Manhattan); the other three siblings had died in infancy or early childhood in the squalor of the family circumstances. Frank McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten. In Angela's Ashes, McCourt described an entire block of houses sharing a single outhouse, flooded by constant rain, and infested with rats and vermin.

At age nineteen he left Ireland, returning to the United States where, after a stint working in New York City's Biltmore Hotel, he was drafted during the Korean War and was sent to Germany. Upon his discharge from the US Army, he returned to New York City, where he held a series of jobs.

He graduated in 1956 from New York University with an MA degree in English. He taught English at McKee High School in Staten Island. Frank McCourt taught across a range of five New York schools, including McKee Technical and Vocational High School and Stuyvesant High School. He also taught in the English department of New York City Technical College of the City University of New York. In a 1997 New York Times Op-Ed essay, Mr. McCourt wrote about his experiences teaching immigrant mothers there.

He received the Pulitzer Prize (1997) and National Book Critics Circle Award (1996) for his memoir Angela's Ashes (1996), which details his impoverished childhood in Limerick. He also authored 'Tis (1999), which continues the narrative of his life, picking up from the end of the previous book and focusing on life as a new immigrant in America. Teacher Man (2005) detailed the challenges of being a young, uncertain teacher.

McCourt was a member of the National Arts Club and was a recipient of the Award of Excellence from The International Center in New York. In 2002 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario.

McCourt was first married in August 1961 (div. 1979), to Alberta Small, with whom he had a daughter, Margaret. He married again, in August 1984 (div. 1985) to psychotherapist Cheryl Ford. He married his third wife, Ellen Frey McCourt, in August 1994, and they lived in New York City and Roxbury, Connecticut. He is survived by Ellen, his daughter Maggie, a granddaughter Chiara, grandsons Frank and Jack, and his three brothers and their families.

In his free time, McCourt took up the casual sport of rowing. He once sank his Wintech recreational single scull on the Mohawk River in New York, and had to be rescued by a local rowing team.

It was announced in May 2009 that he had been treated for melanoma and that he was in remission, undergoing home chemotherapy. On 19 July 2009, he died from the cancer, with meningeal complications, at a hospice in Manhattan. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


Every once in a while, a lucky reader comes across a book that makes an indelible impression, a book you immediately want to share with everyone around you....Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveal all we need to know about being human.
Linnea Lannon - Detroit Free Press


McCourt spares us no details: the stench of the one toilet shared by an entire street, the insults of the charity officers, the maurauding rats, the street fights, the infected eyes, the fleas in the mattress...Yet he found a way to love in that miserable Limerick, and it is love one remembers as the dominant flavor in this Irish stew.
Booklist


McCourt is the eldest of eight children born to Angela Sheehan and Malachy McCourt in the 1930s. The McCourts began their family in poverty in Brooklyn, yet when Angela slipped into depression after the death of her only daughter (four of eight children survived), the family reversed the tide of emigration and returned to Ireland, living on public assistance in Limerick. McCourt's story is laced with the pain of extreme poverty, aggravated by an alcoholic father who abandoned the family during World War II. Given the burdens of grief and starvation, it's a tribute to his skill that he can serve the reader a tale of love, some sadness, but at least as much laughter as the McCourts' "Yankee" children knew growing up in the streets of Limerick. His story, almost impossible to put down, may well become a classic. 
Library Journal


A powerful, exquisitely written debut, a recollection of the author's miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, during the Depression and WW II. McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 but returned to Ireland with his family at the age of four. He describes, not without humor, scenes of hunger, illness, filth, and deprivation that would have given Dickens pause. His shiftless loquacious alcoholic father, Malachy, rarely worked; when he did he usually drank his wages, leaving his wife, Angela, to beg from local churches and charity organizations. McCourt remembers his little sister dying in his mother's arms. Then Oliver, one of the twins, got sick and died. McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was 10. As awful and neglectful as his father could be, there were also heart-rendingly tender moments: Unable to pay for a doctor and fearful of losing yet another child when the youngest is almost suffocating from a cold, his father places his "mouth on the little nose...sucking the bad stuff out of Michael's head." Malachy fled to do war work in England but failed to send any money home, leaving his wife and children, already living in squalor, to further fend for themselves. They stole and begged and tore wood from the walls to burn in the stove. Forced to move in with an abusive cousin, McCourt became aware that the man and his mother were having "the excitement" up there in their grubby loft. After taking a beating from the man, McCourt ran away to stay with an uncle and spent his teens alternating between petty crime and odd jobs. Eventually he made his way, once again, to America. An extraordinary work in every way. McCourt magically retrieves love, dignity,and humor from a childhood of hunger, loss, and pain.
 Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Countless memoirs have been published recently, yet Angela's Ashes stands out. What makes this memoir so unique and compelling?

2. Discuss the originality and immediacy of Frank McCourt's voice and the style he employs—i.e., his sparing use of commas, the absence of quotation marks. How, through a child's voice and perspective, does McCourt establish and maintain credibility?

3. Ever present in Angela's Ashes is the Catholic Church. In what ways does the Catholic Church of McCourt's Ireland hurt its members and limit their experience? How does the Church protect and nurture its followers? What is Frank's attitude toward the Church?

4. McCourt writes: "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 prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland." Was this your impression of Frank McCourt's father? How can Frank write about his father without bitterness? What part did Malachy play in creating the person that Frank eventually became?

5. Women—in particular mothers—play a significant role in Angela's Ashes. Recall the scenes between Angela and her children; the MacNamara sisters (Delia and Philomena) and Malachy; Aunt Aggie and young Frank; Angela and her own mother. In what ways do these interactions reflect the roles of women within their families? Discuss the ways in which Angela struggles to keep her family together in the most desperate of circumstances.

6. McCourt titles his memoir Angela's Ashes, after his mother. What significance does the phrase "Angela's Ashes" acquire by the end of the book?

7. Despite the McCourts' horrid poverty, mind-numbing starvation, and devastating losses, Angela's Ashes is not a tragic memoir. In fact, it is uplifting, triumphant even. How does McCourt accomplish this?

8. Irish songs and lyrics are prominently featured in Angela's Ashes. How do these lyrics contribute to the unique voice of this memoir? How does music affect Frank's experiences? How do you think it continues to influence his memories of his childhood?

9. Frank spent the first four years of his life in the United States. How do his experiences in America affect Frank's years in Ireland?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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