Monday, July 20, 2009

Thank you, Frank

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 worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years
So opens Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Angela's Ashes, Sadly, Frank passed away yesterday at 78 of skin cancer-related complications.

Angela's Ashes, if not the best (non-fiction) book I've ever read, is certainly my favorite. It moved me in a way that no other book has. Mr. McCourt's ability to express sorrow in vivid but often humorous ways is unmatched. Though I'm hardly a literature expert, I'm somewhat well read. His lyrical style is as good as any I've seen.

Something about his writing, including his subsequent books, 'Tis and Teacher Man, reached all the way to my core. I found Angela's Ashes at a time in my life when I was trying to find myself. As a spoiled American I certainly could not relate to the depths of the poverty and misery experienced by McCourt familyand their confederates in Limerick, Ireland during the Great Depression. But there was a familiarity to it all.

At that time in my life, in the process of trying to find my own identity, I latched on pretty heavily to my Irish ancestry. Looking back, I think that was my way of connecting to my father who gave me most of my Irish blood. Perhaps, though, there was more to it. Maybe, just maybe, our DNA has a "memory" of its own. Those ancestors of mine that left Limerick, Ireland for America in the late 1880's likely experienced their own "miserable Irish Catholic childhoods." In a symbolic sense, Angela's Ashes, for me, was akin to finding one's great-grandfather's diary in the trunk in the attic. It wasn't my great-great-grandfather's story, but it certainly could have been.

Whatever the case may be, Frank's writing helped patch some holes in my existent. More accurately, Angela's Ashes caused me to look at myself and those who came before me with more depth of clarity, with more of an eye toward the long strands that connect our history (or family history) to us today.

Reading 'Tis and Teacher Man were less heady than all that. All stories that have beginnings need endings and these two books rounded out the story that we all wanted to see end happily. By those books I was reminded that no matter where you come from, you can make something of yourself with a lot determination and a little dumb luck. It never hurts to be reminded of that.

All that aside, Mr. McCourt's books are fantastic reads. They are highly entertaining. For the hours of reading pleasure I had, if nothing else, Frank deserves a big thank you.

God bless you, Frank. Thank you for sharing your incredible life with me/us.

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