Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sad embers

I finished reading Anglea's Ashes, by Frank McCourt, recently. This is a memoir about growing up destitute in Ireland in the early/mid-1900s. Sheesh. What can I say? It's depressing stuff.

McCourt recounts how he was born in America, but his family moved back to Ireland (Limerick) after the death of his baby sister (a scant two months old when she died). Frank, his mother, his father, his younger brother Malachy, and his two littlest brothers, Eugene and Oliver (twins), stay briefly with his mother's begrudging family after the move, and then find a place for themselves. We quickly begin to see the pattern of their lives. They are always scraping for money and/or food. Whenever their family comes into a bit of money, their father drinks it away at the pub. Whenever their father gets a good job, he holds it for only a few weeks before being fired for one reason or another (usually as a result of his alcoholism).

This book is a heartache. Frank's life is miserable, and he loses more than one sibling to disease and starvation. Yet even after burying his own children, who died because he could not/would not provide for them, Frank's father does not change. Essentially, he abandons his family in the end.

I kept reading this book, waiting for things to look up for Frank, but any good luck was short-lived. The book offers a compelling picture of the life of the poor, but it is a woeful tale indeed. Frank's tales of near-starvation are interspersed with a rueful humor based on the personalities of people that he knew and the "fire and brimstone" tenor of the Catholic church at the time.

To be honest, I'm not sure it deserved to win the Pulitzer. I mean, sure, he was miserable. But there seemed (to me) to be no larger message, no larger lesson learned. His extended family was hard-hearted and never wanted to help. Even in the throes of starvation, his own mother would buy cigarettes instead of food to feed her family. It was just a sad, depressing account of what seemed like a fairly miserable childhood. The primary thing I took away from it was gratitude - gratitude for where I live, the people in my life, the blessings that we enjoy.

1 comment:

Sandi said...

I loved this book. It was very sad, but the story was well told.

If you like his writing style but not so much the subject matter, try his second book, "'Tis." It's about his early adult life, and is much less depressing.