Friday, January 7, 2011

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Happy New Year!  And the first book of the year is....well, not exactly happy.  Actually, I was thinking if the post-holiday anti-climax and the cold, sometimes cloudy weather (I do live in Arizona, so it's not like it's that cold and cloudy) didn't depress me, this book was sure to push me over the edge.  And there was no easing in to it, either.  Already, there is a dead child in the first paragraph.  In the second, the author says, "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all."  And the worst part was knowing that this was a memoir.  All these awful things really happened.  All to one family.  

When I read a book, I try to read the whole thing.  I like to read the dedication at the front and I often read the acknowledgments as well.  Well, let me tell you- having read the dedication at this book was like knowing in which room the ax murderer waits in a horror film.  I saw the list of his brothers on the first page and it was heart wrenching to read in the first chapters about brothers not on that list.  I was reading about these sweet boys and knowing they weren't going to make it.  It was awful.

 I was heartbroken reading about the first child's death, their daughter Margaret.  The doctor arrives to examine the infant and he is very impatient with the family's grief.  "My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn't have all day."  Has he no compassion?  His mother then takes to her bed and his father, an alcoholic who had not had a drop to drink since his daughter was born, disappears for days, drunk.  A father's grief must be terrible, but to leave his grieving wife and four small sons alone in a house with no food and no warmth is unforgivable.  Frank, the oldest, but still only four-years-old, tries his best to care for his brothers.  He makes something to eat from a little bread and boiled sour milk and he fills the babies' bottles with water and sugar because that's all he has.  Thank God for the two wonderful neighbors who help care for the distraught mother, two small boys who don't even know what bowls are, and twin infants with only dirty rags for diapers. 

I believe Frank McCourt's father is a good dad, but a worthless man.  The instances we see where he isn't drinking, he plays with his children.  He tells them stories.  He loves them.  But his addiction is much to powerful and regardless of his good intentions, he succumbs each and every time.  I wanted to smack that man every time he came into the house, sloppy drunk and pulling his sons out of bed in the middle of the night demanding they promise to die for Ireland. 

I love the scenes when Frank grows a little older and stands up to his father.  When the second of the twins dies, Frank's father stops in to a pub, taking Frank and little Eugene's small coffin with him.  Frank is upset seeing two pints sitting on the coffin, as he should be, and threatens to tell his mother.  When his father tells him to wait outside, Frank simply says no.  His father finally admits it is time to go home. 

And poor Eugene!  His twin, Oliver, had died only six months earlier and Eugene was never able to accept it.  He was only a year or two old and continued to stare out the window calling for his twin.  How does one mother take all that and still survive?  Her own mother, Frank's grandmother, tells her she has to get up out of her bed.  "There are children dead, she says, but there are children alive and they need their mother." 

The years go on and thank goodness no more children die.  Then poor Frank contracts Typhoid Fever.  It's lucky he is diagnosed in time because one doctor who "has the smell of whiskey on him" just calls it a bad cold and tells his mother Frank should stay in bed.  Prodded by another good neighbor, Frank's mother calls for their own doctor who rushes Frank to the hospital.  While in that hospital, Frank meets a young girl who introduces him to poetry.  Sadly, the girl dies, but Frank continues to seek after poetry and books.  The nurses try to keep him from reading and they are angry about the poem the girl shares with him, but I love when he says, "I can dream about the red-lipped landlord's daughter and the highwayman, and the nurses and nuns can do nothing about it.  It's lovely to know the world can't interfere with the inside of your head."  It is lovely, isn't it?  Incidentally, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes has been one of my favorite poems since I saw Anne of Green Gables as a little girl.

Frank McCourt makes his way through public school and his final teacher tells him he must "study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can't make up an empty mind."  This is some of the best advice Frank is given and I think it's good advice for the rest of us, too.  Following this advice, Frank chooses to go his own way and take steps to return to America.  When he is denied entrance to the secondary school, this teacher is "disgusted by this free and independent Ireland that keeps a class system foisted on us by the English, that we are throwing our talented children on the dung heap."  He then says, "You must get out of this country, boys.  Go to America."  And five years later, after working and saving the best that he can, that is just what he does. 

This was a very difficult book for me to read.  It was just too sad.  Set during the depression and World War II, the poverty McCourt experiences is deplorable.  I am relieved to know that Frank and his three brothers all made it out alive, immigrated to America and made better lives for themselves, but what a difficult journey it was getting there.  This was our book club selection for January and this month's host says this is her favorite book.  I can't wait to discuss this with the group and with her specifically.  Maybe I missed something.  Maybe it touched others in a way it didn't touch me.  Maybe I'm just a big ball baby that cries too easily (we all know this is actually true) and that's why it was so difficult for me.  I am looking forward to our discussion, but I feel sure this is not a book to which I will return. about some fluff!  My next book, Bitter is the New Black, should fill that need nicely.

1 comment:

Amy said...

15 years since I read this book (I could never bring myself to read it again either), and you've brought it all back to me. Well done, as I am fighting back tears thinking of those poor, lost children and their parents.