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S2, Book Report by Christin Kolbe
Since “Angela’s Ashes” is an autobiography the following biography of Frank McCourt is lacking the time period that is written about in the book itself.
Biography - Frank McCourt
Between 1845-1849 something dramatic happened in that had immense consequences on the demographics and agriculture of the country. A disease, the so called potatoe blight, had been imported and spread all over South- West Ireland. For the next four years the majority of the potatoe crop had been exterminated by this disease and starvation and emigration was the result of the Great Famine. In addition, the Irish had been evicted and discriminated by Protestant English landlords.
The famine itself probably resulted in about 1 million deaths whereas the effects of emigration in the immediate famine period let the population drop by a further 1.5 million. These migrants largely ended up in the USA. But people in Ireland sufferred, even after the disease had stopped spreading, because the economy had seriously been damaged; the depression that followed continued the decline until the second half of the 20th century.
Frank McCourt, the author of “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis”, son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1931 in N.Y.C., USA. This child of the Great Depression which was set off in 1929 after the Black Friday Crash on Wall Street, grew up in the poor environment of Brooklyn. Whatever the reasons for the Crash of 1929 were, the Great Depression established its own environment, and people had to survive any way they could. There may have been enough food to feed those in need, but the system that allowed distribution to work, was itself not working.
In 1935 the family decided to go back to their home country in hope of finding a better situation.
After miserable years in the lanes of Limerick Franks decided to return to America in 1949, at the age of nineteen. He arrived in N.Y.C with 50$ and an irish accent. Short after Frank started working in the “Biltmore Hotel” keeping the lowest position in the house: ”just above the Puerto Rican dishwasher”, he was occupied in the bird department and later on learned to build tables for the hotel.
When the Chinese invaded Korea in 1950, Frank McCourt was drafted in 1952 and sent to Lenggries in Germany spending 2 years in the Army where he was training German shepherds. After he returned to the U.S. Frank worked as a company clerk till the GI Bill, a law that facilitates the chance to benefit of a high education for veterans, gave him the opportunity to study at the New York University. After finishing his bachelor’s and later on his master’s degree, Frank McCourt started teaching at various New Yorker high schools. He teached English for nearly thirty years- ranging from a vocational high school on Staten Island to the City’s most prestigious public school, Stuyvesant. In 1995 the 64 year old grandfather McCourt retired and finally reached his dream, namely, to publish his own book “Angela’s Ashes”. The book was incredibly successfull, won the Pulitzer Price in 1998 and several others, including the german bookshop prize. By now over 4 million copies are sold and Frank McCourt published his second memoir “’Tis”, a sequel to “Angela’s Ashes”, in the autumn of 1999.
Today he lives, together with his third wife Ellen, in a newly bought estate in Connecticut, next door to Arthur Miller, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffmann.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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 Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Frank McCourts Memoir “Angela’s Ashes” starts off in Brooklyn, New York where his parents, both recent Irish immigrants, meet at a party during the Great Depression. His father had been working for the IRA and left Ireland after the English found out that he was part of the illegal organisation putting a price on his head. His mother had been sent to America by her mother believing Angela would find a better life in the United States. Malachy and Angela are forced to marry after the consequences of the “party” show that Angela is pregnant. One year after his involuntary but catholic birth Frank is getting a brother, named after his father Malachy. When Frank is three years old his mother gives birth to twins, Oliver and Eugene. Whereas Angela tries to make the best out of this catholic marriage her husband drinks their money, bringing home the wages in the first week but never in the second and not able to keep a job for long. When Frank is four Margaret is born. His parents are mad about the baby, his father even stops drinking, but when the girl dies of pneumonia Frank’s parents cannot control their pain. Angela’s sisters eventually organize money for them to go back to Ireland where, surely, things will be different.
But as tough as life had been for the McCourt’s in New York, it doesn’t compare to the hardship they encounter in their native country. Arrived in Ireland they travel to Malachy’s family where they’re not welcomed at all. Penniless and destitude, the McCourt family finally makes it to Limerick where Frank is introduced to a collection of relatives, some as miserly as it is possibly to imagine, some, as generous. Angela’s mother is not glad about the husband from the North but she helps the family to get started. Frank’s father rarely has a job and when he does, spends his wages in the pubs, leaving Frank’s mother to beg from churches and charity organizations.
Then one of the twins, Oliver, gets sick and dies. Angela is desperate and wants to move into another room because she cannot take the thought of her dead child. Six months later Eugene follows Oliver because he missed his brother. Frank and his younger brother Malachy are the only ones left over. They start to go to school while the family moves again. This time the “Saint Vincent de Paul Society”, a charity organization, provides a house on “Barrack Hill” in the lanes of Limerick. They have to share the lavatory that is next to their door with all houses down the road. The family keeps on living on the dole because Frank’s father says it is impossible for him to get a job with his Northern accent. Two weeks before Christmas the kitchen floor is flooded and they have to move to the first floor which Angela and Malachy ironically call “Italy” because it is dry up there. On Christmas they’re having pig’s head while the whole world seems to have ham and goose. Frank even has to go out and pick up coal to boil their dinner.
Yet Frank’s father, irresponsible, exasperating and beguiling, does nurture in him an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland and the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother another baby after Christmas.
In school the preparation for 1st communion starts. The kids are told: “no questions to be ask, just learn the catechism”. While the students look forward to the food they get on their communion and confirmation day, the teaches want to make sure everyone knows the catholic reglements by heart. But Frank throws up his First Communion breakfast because he is not used to that much food. His grandma is worried about the wafer that he threw up and makes him go to the Jesuits to confess since she has now “God in her backyard”.
Till he is ten his father still has no job. Instead he takes long walks into the country to not be confronted with the condition his family is in. His father teaches him Latin so that he can be an altar boy but when he wants to apply Frank is not admitted because the mighty catholic church does not want boys from the lanes. When Frank is in 4th grade the catholic church has manipulated him so intensly that he is of the opinion all Protestants are doomed. He pities the little girls in their white dresses, who unfortunately have the wrong religion. When somebody dies the kids don’t seem to miss that person but hope to be invited to their wake. At the age of ten Frankie starts his first job by delivering the paper together with his uncle Pa Sheehan but stops doing it because his uncle says it is too expensive for him. Short after, his little brother Alphonsus is born. His mother is tired of giving birth to children and seeing them grow up in such an environment. The whole family is getting mad at his father when they hear that he drank the money for the new child that the grandparents sent from Dublin. He is now “gone beyond the beyonds”. On his confirmation day Frank break down and is brought to the hospital with the diagnosis: Typhoid. He stays in the hospital for 3 ½ months and becomes friends with the girl from next door that introduces him to Shakespeare: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having a jewel in my mouth when I say the words”. But their friendship is not supported by the nurses and Frank is moved up under the roof into isolation where he cannot speak with any other patient. After he gets out of the hospital the headmaster moves him back into 5th grade where his brother Malchy studies as well. But after Frank hands in an essay about “God and the weather” he is moved up to 6th grade and happily surprised because his teacher answers questions. World War II is still going on and many men from the lane are leaving for England to work there. So it happens that McCourts neighbours receive a 5 pound money order every Saturday while their own dad just drinks and takes long walks to the fields. After fighting about it Dad is leaving for England as well, but even in the first week the telegram boy has no telegram for them. Frank’s eyes are sore and he has to go back to the hospital because of a heavy eye infection. But he is back home when Mr. Downes from across the lane comes back home from England to see his family and tells them that their father is drinking and singing irish patriotic songs, in danger to get kicked out any day and a disgrace for Ireland. After realizing that there is no hope for support from their dad, his mother goes to the Vincent de Paul Society where they embarras her with joking about her husband having a “Piccadilly Tart” while leaving his wife with no money.
When Mom is getting sick Frank is to scared to inform his family because they always yell at him for being the son of a man from the North. He skips school and steals lemonade and bread for Mom and his brothers. But they are discovered by the school yard, their mother is rushed to the hospital with pneumonia and the children have to move to Aunt Aggie’s who does not like them because she is not able to get kids. Their Aunt is sending a letter to their father telling him about his wife in hospital and indeed he comes home for a day to see them when Angela is getting out of the hospital. When Frank is eleven the neighbour Mr. Hannon asks him to help delivering coal because his legs are almost numb. Frank is delighted and feels like a real man who supports his family. His classmates are jealous and he enjoys his popularity. But then Mr. Hannon who is like a father to him starts having problems with his legs and cannot work anymore. At the same time Franks eyes are majorly infected again so that there is no more work.
Then there is a letter that his dad is coming home for Christmas. He arrives one day late with no money, two teeth missing and half the chocolate for Christmas gone. When the family accuses him of drinking he goes to see “a man” and leaves the next day. This is the last time Frank shall see his father for a long time. Their financial situation is a disaster and the rent man looses his patience. Because they have no money to buy turf Frank and his family tore down the walls to have something to heat with. When the rent man reqalises what they have done he puts them out and they have to move to Angela’s cousin, Laman Griffin, who livesall by himself since his mother died.The children are fascinated by their own toilet in the backyard and the clean sheets on the bed. But Angela and the children have to do all different kinds of things to satisfy Laman. For example pull over chair and table so that he is able to climb up his loft, or empty his chamber pot.In addition, Frank’s suspicion,namely his mother committing adultery by making love to their landlord, had been confirmed. All these disgraceful jobs cannot be carried out without a certain latent anger.
Soon after Frank’s grandmother dies of pneumonia, Angela’s brother Thomas dies the same year of consumption. Malachy joins the Irish army in Dublin to play in the orchestra and Frank feels lonesome because he’s left with two younger brothers. When Frank wants to borrow Laman’s bicycle he has to empty the chamber pots as a condition. When he forgets it once, Laman refuses to borrow him his bike and Angela does not support her son because she is afraid to be put out. The same night Frank decides to move out because he cannot take the way his family behaves. So he moves in with his uncle who fell on his head and does not care about anything. On his fourteenth birthday after school is out forever, Frank wants to start working for the post office when his Aunt Aggie comes over to buy him new clothes so that his chances of getting the job are going to increase. Frank delievers telegrams while his brothers start to move in and finally his mother as well. He meets a girl, Theresa, who he sleeps with for the first time. But she does of the consumption and Frank feels like he had committed a mortal sin. Until his 16th birthday he is saving money to go back to America and a few weeks after his birthday he gets a new job at an english newspaper distribution. Working there plus writing letters for an old lady lets him eran some money so that he is able embark the “Irish Oak” back to America when he is 19 years old.
Recommendation & Evaluation
All in once I loved the book when I first read it. But today I have to add some restrictions.
If the book would have been written in past tense, like the first 19 pages, I do not think I would have liked it too much. It helps getting to know the characters, but the strongest reason for favouring this book is the voice Frank McCourt tells the story in. He reports his own life from the point of view of a child. This is why “Angela’s Ashes” is a humourus, compassionate and glorious book to me.
What might seem to be simply a story of "how I made it through this mess" is written in the same way Frank McCourt may recount tales verbally. He saw abuse before anyone knew what abuse was. Abuse from family, from the church, from schoolmates. He saw death before most children need to consider such issues (three of his siblings did not make it past childhood). He experienced a father who preferred to drink his wages rather than support his family through abject poverty (at a time when mere pittance or change would have made all the difference in the world. He experienced disease first-hand, in his family, his community, and himself. Did all of this add up to a bitter person who recalls these memories with utter disdain? No, not at all. This is the beauty of Angela's Ashes and the greatness of Frank McCourt; he recants his memoir with a lyrical and whimsical Irish voice that has been compared to James Joyce and others. It is a big achievement that the narrator was able to describe such an extreme situation so interesting, funny and sad, which makes the reader anxious about what is going to happen to the characters in the next chapter. But in more than one passage his writing style appears to be repetitive, concentrating too much on details. Unfortunately, this has an tiring effect on the reader.
The main reason why it is worth to be read is he “Catholic humour”. Writing so naiv and exact about the church and the unchristian effects this belief has for the family makes the book so funny that the reader cannot decide whether to laugh or to cry. The wit and hilarity are laced with an underlying bitterness, but this bitterness is subtle and merely colors the horizon of this tale of a childhood and adolescence; alternatively, what is produced is music and a rare glittering energy that is an example for all of us.