Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Angela's Ashes

Frank McCourt died last summer and I remember thinking, "I really need to read Angela's Ashes." I'm not one to venture out of my fictional comfort zone and I think that I kept this memoir shelved for years for fear of it's despair. I had watched Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and that was about as much of "Ireland impoverished" as I could take. Even the cover photo was haunting, a little black and white boy in pantaloons staring at me with eyes that screamed, "I've lived through worse than you will ever know." So, a decade had passed and I kept finding reasons not to read this Pulitzer prize winner.
I want Ireland to be emerald green and steely blue, a place where sheep are herded over cobblestone lanes just home from the fields, where fairy circles abound and smiling men drink Guinness in authentic Aran sweaters while their women named Brigid, and Maeve, and Kathleen, dust the Waterford crystal and starch the doilies they sit upon. Basically, the Ireland of the "Irish Spring" soap commercials -"Manly, yes, but I like it too!"

(With Grandpa at the cottage, 1968)
My grandpa came from Ireland to Canada in 1913. Our family lore recalls that his family originally had booked passage on the Titanic and according to differing recollections (someone was sick and unable to travel, a sister was not finished her job) all agreed that my great grandmother stood firm and said, "We either go to Canada as a family, or we don't go at all." Needless to say, they remained in Tullamore and booked passage on a ship shortly after the sinking of the Titanic. My grandpa never returned to his homeland and I often wonder if he would have liked to. He died when I was only five and there are so many questions I would have liked to ask him. I do know that a sign still hangs over the family cottage that reads, "Erin Go Bragh." My sister traveled to Ireland on business a few years back and was able to visit my grandpa's home. It had passed into only one family since the Molloy's left in 1913 and was virtually unchanged with the passing of nearly a century. She brought mom back some pebbles from the property and several "priceless" photos.

Frank McCourt's Ireland of the 1930's -40's was much different than my colouring book imagination. It was sparse and grey and damp and starving. There were no rainbows or Leprechauns in sight. It was poverty and religious tension and disease and death and abuse and alcoholism and war and dreams and hope. And it was a tremendous read. I am amazed with the amount of recall and detail that McCourt enlisted to breathe life once again into his boyhood in both Brooklyn and Limerick. Especially once discovering that he wrote the memoir after his retirement from teaching. I grew up being guilted into finishing my vegetables out of respect for the starving children in Africa and China who would have happily ate creamed corn courtesy of the Jolly Green Giant. I had not really experienced poverty until McCourt took me into his childhood home with it's one bed infested with fleas and the community latrine and the boiled pig's head for Christmas. His story helped me understand the true differences between warmth and cold, damp and dry, health and sickness, and love and neglect.

I've heard that McCourt has his critics in Limerick city. Likely, they are unhappy with the portrayal. This book though is about Limerick as seen and remembered through the eyes of young Francis McCourt. A memoir is one's own point of view as influenced by their experience and memory. So, it may not necessarily be everyone's truth; the truth as known to those closest to him. It would be a different story I am certain if told by Angela or Malachy. A favourite professor of mine is fond of quoting, "We all have our own mother" and I'm sorry that I can't remember who owns that quote, but I think it really sums it up. We see people and events and history through our own eyes and our versions are therefore unique.

The book is rolling full steam ahead as McCourt returns to America as a young man and then abruptly ends. Just ends, with the word, "tis." I thought I had a misprint. I checked to see if pages were missing. Boom, like hitting a brick wall, it stopped. But, there is another book. And it is called, Tis. I can't wait to read it.


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