Pros: Well-written, brutally honest memoir
When I look back at my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. - Frank McCourt, Angelas Ashes
In generations to come, the opening paragraphs of Frank McCourts Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography will be, more than likely, ranked among the most beautifully written and captivating starts of any literary work in the English language. The second paragraph quoted above is wonderfully constructed, with each word carefully chosen, each variation on the theme of childhood building upon the other to create a haunting, melodic composition that lingers in the minds ear long after the eye has moved on to other passages.
Now then, I must confess that Im not a big fan of autobiographies. I like history books, yes, and Ive read many biographies of great and not-so-great historical figures, trying (with some success) to get a balanced view of such individuals as John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adolf Hitler, and George Armstrong Custer, often by reading books written by both admirers and detractors. This rarely ever changes my attitudes about the historical figure to me, Hitler will always be an evil, ruthless mass murderer and dictator, while Ikes image as an efficient and wise President remains, in my mind at least, more or less intact.
Autobiographies, on the other hand, I dont trust as much. While I do try to read them with an open mind, Im often wondering what the author is leaving out of his or her story. After all, we all want to put our best face forward to the world at large, and if we all wrote our life stories, Im fairly certain most of us would choose to leave certain facts out.
For instance, Albert Speers Inside the Third Reich, while still an interesting look at Nazi Germany and Hitlers inner circle written by the Fuehrers personal architect and Armaments Minister, tweaks the facts to make it seem as though Speer knew absolutely nothing about the Holocaust even though some of his contemporaries said otherwise.
Not so with Frank McCourt, a U.S.-born child of Irish immigrants and former teacher in New York City. In his 1996 book, Angelas Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood, McCourt relates a touching and sometimes harrowing narrative of the first 19 years of his life, first in New York, then, after the death of his weeks-old sister Margaret, as part of reverse migration back to Ireland, where his father Malachy, mother Angela, twins Eugene and Oliver attempt to subsist in conditions that can be summed up in just two words: extreme poverty.
If McCourt had any intention of self-promotion or ego-boosting, I failed to detect any while reading Angelas Ashes. If he had wanted to make his dad a heroic figure, I doubt hed have mentioned Malachys alcoholism and his penchant for being unemployed most of the time until World War II.
And, of course, there are myriads of details to support the notion that McCourts Irish childhood was, indeed, miserable. How miserable was it? The McCourts end up living in a hovel on a dirt lane in Limerick, sharing a communal toilet with all the neighbors, and enduring the cold, damp climate that, no doubt, contributes to the deaths of the twins less than a year after their arrival in the Emerald Isle.
In some ways, McCourts memoir is almost like a work by Charles Dickens, with young Frank as an Oliver Twist-type of character, getting into childish mischief, watching his mom grimly trying to endure the conditions of poverty which Malachy, Sr. does little to alleviate during the war, the only period in which the elder McCourt has gainful employment, he sends Angela some of his pay only once -- and, in his teen years, earning enough money to return to the United States.
McCourts writing style is elegantly simple, straightforward and unembellished. Throughout Angelas Ashes,, he uses language that evokes Irish accents and phrases, which puts the reader smack in the middle of the Irish neighborhoods in New York and the chilly, bone-dampening streets of Limerick. For the most part, the narrative is accessible and very readable, even though McCourts decision to leave out quotation marks around spoken dialog does take getting used to.
As sad as Angelas Ashes undoubtedly is, it is one of the best books to have been published in the past 20 years, having not only won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, but also the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award (Biography). Like Thomas Keneallys Schindlers List, it will make readers cry, but Angelas Ashes is also a testament about the human spirit and the ability to overcome even the worst of miserable childhoods and attain ones dreams, no matter how impossible they seem to be.