Poverty, the mournful familiar of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, has always occupied the thoughts of great writers. During the first century a.d., Juvenal wrote that “bitter poverty has no harder pang than that it makes men ridiculous.” In his preface to Major Barbara (pr. 1905), George Bernard Shaw declared that “the greatest of our evils and the worst of our crimes is poverty.” More recently, American poet William Carlos Williams, who was a practicing physician, expressed delight at the “anarchy” he found among his poor clients in Rutherford, New Jersey.
In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt dramatizes poverty’s victims, destitute lives made ridiculous, criminal, and anarchic. Yet he also carries from the pitiable circumstances of his youth in Ireland a reconciliation that is never self- pitying, always able to allow the comic in, and, above all, can say, with fellow writer Harry Sylvester, that “the memory of the heart is the longest.”
True, the book’s anchoring sentiment is contained on its opening page: “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. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worst yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Yet, like his countryman James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) eighty years before him, McCourt has chronicled a painful but ultimately rewarding growing up. Angela’s Ashes pronounces, finally, a bittersweet “yes” to life. Frankie McCourt’s story, the longest of shots, has a happy ending.
Nothing in the memoir’s first two hundred pages gives promise of happiness. Rarely since Les Miserables Jean Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family has the want of some one thing so defined sadness: a piece of bread for one kind of sustenance, Frankie’s; a pint of stout for another, his father’s; a penny to refresh; a pair of shoes to replace his rubber-tire ones; a job for his father so his mother will not have to beg and the family go back on the dole.
The McCourts dub their flooded-out and foul-smelling downstairs “Ireland” and the upstairs “Italy” where “it’s warm in the bed with the six of us and I love the glow of the fire the way it dances on the walls and ceiling and makes the room go red and black, red and black, till it dims to white and black and all you can hear is a little cry from [the baby] turning in my mother’s arms.”
Frank believes Angela when she tells him there is an angel on the seventh step. He finds solace in conversation with God’s emissary: Will the angel bring a baby or is this just a visit? Three of his siblings die in the first eighty pages. At ten, Frank himself nearly succumbs to typhoid. His four-month hospital stay leads to his first significant conversation with a girl, Patricia Madigan, in the next room. The nuns rightly dictate that typhus and diphtheria shall not meet, but the slightly older Patricia, mortally ill, lives long enough to share her beloved book of poems and read him his first “bit of Shakespeare.”
“Every day I can’t wait for the doctors and nurses to leave me alone so I can learn a new verse from Patricia and find out what’s happening to the highwayman and the landlord’s red-lipped daughter.” Thus was born Frank McCourt’s love of language, so evident in this memoir.
Frank’s father is the book’s most memorable figure, although it is Malachy McCourt’s recklessness that continually denies his family for his pint. Sent to Coventry during World War II to work in a munitions factory, he sends home only one paycheck in three years. Still, for all his profligacy, only his father, who cannot help Frank with his Irish because he is from the North, can transport his imaginative oldest son out of the lane to lands where everyone is a different color and everything is upside down and backward.
“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 and wants us to die for Ireland.”
Throughout his memoir, Frank McCourt attributes wry commentary on the events of his youth that must be credited to the adult looking down a fifty-year time corridor. Preparing for First Confession and First Communion, Frankie thinks of his sister and twin brothers who are dead: “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die...