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What do Aladdin, Jay-Z, and Frank McCourt have in common? Well, it's definitely not a genie in a bottle or a room full of Grammy awards or a museum in Ireland. It's the archetypal rags-to-riches quality of their stories. It's when a usually obscure person rises from poverty to Gatsbyesque wealth and fame. Our boy Frank McCourt, a kid from the slums of Limerick who suffers from starvation and poverty throughout most of his early life, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in his sixties for his comic memoir (yeah, that's right—comic), published in 1996, about growing up in Ireland during the Great Depression and WWII.
According to McCourt's memoir, let's just say his life is on the list of Top Ten Worst Childhoods. He grows up dirt-poor in New York during the Great Depression, then moves to Limerick, Ireland, where the situation's even worse. He has an alcoholic father who drinks up any wages he earns. Three of his siblings die before age three because of poverty and disease and lack of access to medical care. On top of that, there are outdoor latrines next to his house in Limerick, flea-ridden bedding, ragged clothes, constant hunger, and a nearly fatal bout of typhoid fever. Not to mention loads of guilt—according to the author, loads of religion-inspired guilt for just about everything he did or thought.
Hardly a recipe for success or optimism. But somehow this life eventually goes well. Frank McCourt moves back to America at nineteen and becomes a teacher in New York City. As a way of avoiding classwork, his students bombard him with questions about his life in Ireland, and he decides to write down some of the stories he tells them. And he ends up winning the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir of this miserable childhood. Angela's Ashes is his first of several memoirs, and is made into a film with a cast of famous British, Scottish, and Irish actors. Not bad for a boy from the slums of Limerick.
Although the book's a smashing success, not everyone's happy about it. Even Angela McCourt, Frank's mother and the title character of the book, protested her portrayal. Once, when her sons were performing scenes from their childhood in a New York theater, she jumped up in the audience and shouted, "It didn't happen that way! It's all a pack of lies!" (source). So the question remains: was McCourt exaggerating, or did he simply stretch the truth far enough to make his story compelling?
But at the end of the day, isn't that what a good storyteller does? And McCourt's a master storyteller. His portrait of his childhood is hilarious and loving, despite all the misery. He tells the story from the perspective of his naïve childhood self, with all the hopes and disappointments, adventures and misadventures that any kid experiences. What save young Frank are his smarts, tenacity, and love of learning. Shmoopers: Stay in school!
These days, it seems everyone and his brother is writing a memoir.
Oh, wait. Frank McCourt and two of his brothers did actually all write memoirs. Let's try that again.
These days, it seems that everyone who's experienced hardship of any kind, like living five miles from the nearest Starbucks or being less beautiful and talented than Jennifer Lawrence, is writing a memoir. Angela's Ashes was one of the first examples of what's sometimes called the Misery Memoir genre.
But Frank McCourt was the real deal. Did he exaggerate a bit? Yeah, probably. Still, hunger, cold, disease, alcoholism, loss, and humiliation were his constant companions. So it would be easy to tell you that you should care about this book because you'll learn about real suffering and this book will put your life in perspective and you'll never ever complain about anything again as long as you live and you'll grow up and donate to Oxfam once you get a job.
But we think there's another lesson here that's just as important. How did Frank manage to get through this miserable childhood? Sure, he was born smart and had a certain strength and tenacity about his personality. But ISHO, what saved him were some important relationships that made a huge difference. Angela, of course, with all her faults, loves her boys to death and provides as much security as she can under the dismal circumstances. Dad's stories and imagination enchant Frankie. The neighbors in New York step in with soup and comfort food when the family's on the brink of starvation. His teacher Mr. O'Dea recognizes in Frank's story about "Jesus and the Weather" an intelligence that needed to be cultivated, and saves him from the humiliation of being stuck in class with his little brother. A dying teenager, Theresa Carmody, teaches him to make the most of the life you've got left. And when Frank's really losing it after Theresa's death, a Franciscan priest finally offers what the church should have offered all along. He listens and understands Frank's despair, and manages to lift a huge burden of guilt from Frank's shoulders. All these folks help to buffer Frank from the misery of his poverty and motivate him to hang in there and keep his dream of going back to America alive.
So why should you care about these relationships? Well, you can hope that people like these appear in your own life or you can seek them out when times get tough. You can "look for the helpers," in the words of our awesome Mister Rogers. But here's the real secret: you can be that person yourself. You never know when something you do—something that might seem small at the time—will make a ginormous difference in the life of someone that's struggling. Whether it's as a teacher, a good friend, or just a great listener, or someone who simply notices—you never know. Unless of course you find yourself as a hero in someone's memoir.
In Living Color
A multimedia companion for Angela's Ashes
R.I.P. Frank McCourt
A touching obituary from The New York Times
One Miserable Irish Childhood Coming Right Up
Angela's Ashes was made into an award winning film in 1999.
Original 1996 New York Times Book Review of Angela's Ashes
The original 1996 New York Times book review of Angela's Ashes. They liked it.
Creative Writing Lessons from Frank McCourt? Yes, please!
An article on what it was like to be a student in Frank McCourt's classroom
Frank McCourt: The Seanachie
An article about how Frank McCourt got the idea to write Angela's Ashes
Memoir is the Twin Sister of Fiction
An interview with Frank McCourt on the nature of memoir writing
Will the Real Angela McCourt Please Stand Up?
Some people dispute the picture of Angela that Frank McCourt painted in his memoir.
Frank's Story in HD
Trailer for Angela's Ashes
Straight from the Horse's Mouth
Frank McCourt reads an excerpt from Angela's Ashes.
Finding the Humor in Tragedy
Audio interview with Frank McCourt from NPR
In All Its Black and White Glory
The American book cover version of Angela's Ashes
What Does the Cover of Angela's Ashes Look Like on the Other Side of the Pond?
The UK book cover version of Angela's Ashes