In ’Tis, Frank McCourt’s sequel to his immensely popular candid memoirAngela’s Ashes (1996), young McCourt has finally made it back to the United States. As the previous book stated, the author was born in post-Depression Brooklyn, New York, and brought by his bankrupt Irish parents to Limerick, Ireland, where things go from bad to worse in this gray city by the disease-ridden Shannon River. McCourt spends his younger years in abject poverty, enduring starvation, disease, his drunken father’s abandonment, the malnutrition deaths of younger siblings, his mother’s begging on the streets, and the mean-spirited, repressive Catholic Church. Throughout, he looks toward America as the garden of paradise, using all his wits to return to her golden shores.
For the overwhelmed nineteen-year-old, however, 1949 America does not nearly live up to his mystic visions. McCourt’s first loss of innocence centers on a Catholic priest who befriends him on his voyage from Ireland. Reluctant to leave the youngster alone in New York City, the priest takes him to dinner, then a hotel room where he attempts a sexual encounter. Dismayed, the bewildered youth lands on his feet and soon finds a job cleaning the lobby of the New York Biltmore Hotel, thanks to the powerful Irish Democrats. Deeply ashamed of his appearance—a chronic eye condition and rotten teeth—McCourt suffers acute embarrassment, especially around the young American college girls who gather in the lobby to meet upper-class boyfriends. As he did as a child in Ireland, McCourt finds refuge in the library reading, in particular, Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866). After sending most of his wages home to his mother Angela in Ireland, the youngster finds a room in a boardinghouse where a landlady watches his every move and monitors even his use of the electric light. He spends his first American Christmas in the drunken company of this Swedish landlady and her demented glug-drinking sister. As McCourt points out, no one in Limerick would believe his first American Christmas.
The Korean War serves as the catalyst that boosts McCourt’s step up the American social ladder. After Army basic training, he is stationed in Germany as a military dog trainer. The young man learns more about life, realizing in postwar, poverty-stricken Germany that Ireland does not hold a monopoly on misery. Here, the women sell themselves for a pound of coffee or a few packs of cigarettes. Forced to give up his canine unit, McCourt learns to type, as he claims, faster than any other Army clerk in Europe. Germany’s proximity to Ireland allows a visit while on furlough. Wearing his American Army uniform, he earns accolades from his old Limerick neighbors, but he still finds his family almost in the same depths of poverty as when he departed. Before he leaves, McCourt makes a brief visit to Northern Ireland to see his father, who abandoned the family when the author was ten years old. However, the young soldier leaves in great consternation when he discovers that his family in the north blames his mother for his drunken father’s unconscionable behavior. Before he leaves Ireland, the McCourts move into newer accommodations. After his discharge, he returns to New York ready to settle down with an Irish girl with whom he corresponded during the war.
However, the romance with Emer fails to ripen. McCourt, working now as a warehouse laborer, spends much of his time, and most of his money, drinking with his chums. Living in another run-down rooming house owned by an Irish, holier-than-thou landlord, McCourt becomes increasingly despondent. Emer wants an educated man and a good provider, but McCourt’s lack of initiative excludes him from the running. After she takes up with an insurance man, the jilted young man decides he will don a suit and work 9 to 5 in the insurance industry to win her back. All this happens to no avail, as McCourt quits in disgust. However, the effort brings him one step closer to the education he needs to realize his real calling as a gifted English teacher at Stuyvesant High School and city colleges. In a particularly heroic gesture, McCourt walks into New York University with the G.I. Bill in hand. Without a high school diploma, he is placed on probation and begins his studies.
In college, McCourt feels lost for a while. Deeply ill at ease, he finds it difficult to tell if the professors praise or ridicule him. Ashamed of his looks and his Irish brogue, he keeps to himself, attempting to remain invisible at any cost. However, his ability to write soon posits him squarely in the spotlight when a professor reads his work to the class. Now, everyone knows about his background in Irish poverty. This works out well when an especially attractive classmate approaches him. Mike, otherwise known as Alberta, is a stunner. McCourt and Alberta have their ups and...
(The entire section is 1986 words.)