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Angela's Ashes (The Frank McCourt Memoirs) Hardcover – September 5, 1996
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"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood," writes Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes. "Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." Welcome, then, to the pinnacle of the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. Born in Brooklyn in 1930 to recent Irish immigrants Malachy and Angela McCourt, Frank grew up in Limerick after his parents returned to Ireland because of poor prospects in America. It turns out that prospects weren't so great back in the old country either--not with Malachy for a father. A chronically unemployed and nearly unemployable alcoholic, he appears to be the model on which many of our more insulting cliches about drunken Irish manhood are based. Mix in abject poverty and frequent death and illness and you have all the makings of a truly difficult early life. Fortunately, in McCourt's able hands it also has all the makings for a compelling memoir.
From School Library Journal
YA. Despite impoverishing his family because of his alcoholism, McCourt's father passed on to his son a gift for superb storytelling. He told him about the great Irish heroes, the old days in Ireland, the people in their Limerick neighborhood, and the world beyond their shores. McCourt writes in the voice of the child?with no self-pity or review of events?and just retells the tales. He recounts his desperately poor early years, living on public assistance and losing three siblings, but manages to make the book funny and uplifting. Stories of trying on his parents' false teeth and his adventures as a post-office delivery boy will have readers laughing out loud. Young people will recognize the truth in these compelling tales; the emotions expressed; the descriptions of teachers, relatives, neighbors; and the casual cruelty adults show toward children. Readers will enjoy the humor and the music in the language. A vivid, wonderfully readable memoir.?Patricia Noonan, Prince William Public Library, VA
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The setting was Ireland and he brought the flavor
of the Emerald Isle along with all its greenery to a bigger than life status!
So much of the book was depressing yet he intermingled comedic parts throughout to keep it balanced and exciting!
The reader was shown the perils of poverty and all its brutal effects on a family: the father, mother, children and relatives.
In most cases it brought out the worst of people but some characters showed strength and resilience beyond imagination!
The ending provided no resolutions and left you with a grave feeling of despair and uncertainty!
It was a sad tale of woe which makes one wonder if any of us could ever endure what Frank and his family did and live to actually write about it?
Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County, Antrim.
Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the
Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he
wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.  When I was a child I would
look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why
anyone would give money for a head like that. (McCourt, 12)
This establishes the comic tone of the story through the voice of the character, recalling through his inner thoughts as a child, later through narrative summary, what he was told by his grandmother when he was thirteen; “as a wee lad, your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident, he was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar.” (McCourt, 12). This revelation becomes more humorous when the reader reconciles it with the story of how the grandmother’s brother, Patrick “Ab” Sheean, became retarded, after his alcoholic father dropped him on his head, when he was a baby. (McCourt, 13).
Living with an alcoholic father, even one that is not necessarily abusive, can be a rather difficult subject matter for any reader to plow through, particularly where his alcoholism leave the family so impoverished that his family is near starvation, while he spends what little money on ale however, McCourt’s use of a limited first person view through a child’s eyes, the reader is given an account that is both tolerable, and sometimes funny. Here the voice of the child character portrays the tragic account of life in an impoverished alcoholic family with both catharsis, and humor. He uses word choices indicative of an Irish child, and through creative use of point of view, and method of speaking like a child, he says:
When Dad gets a job Mam is cheerful and she sings,
Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss,
It had to be and the reason is this
Could it be true, that someone like you
Could love me, love me?
When Dad brings home the first weeks wages, Mam is delighted, she can pay the lovely
Italian man in the grocery shop and she can hold her head up again because there’s nothing
worse in the world than to owe and be beholding to anyone. She cleans … she buys … and …
on Friday night we know the weekend will be wonderful. … Mam will boil the water on the stove
and wash us in the great tin tub and Dad will dry us. Malachy will turn around and show his
behind. Dad will pretend to be shocked and we’ll all laugh …(but) when Dad’s job
goes into the third week he does not bring home the wages… we know Mam won’t
sing anymore one can see why I wanted your kiss. She sits at the kitchen table
talking to herself… and Dad rolls up the stairs singing Roddy McCorley.
[By the fourth week] Dad loses his job…(McCourt, 23-28).
When his new baby sister, Margaret, dies, and his mother shuts down and stares at the wall, the use of a child’s voice enables the reader to somehow cope with the description of neglect of the other small children living in a roach infested apartment, with no food, and having to fend for themselves while their alcoholic father is still out at the pub. Later, when Oliver, one of the twins dies of pneumonia, followed by his brother, Eugene, McCourt’s use of his child’s voice, delivering death of his brothers, and baby sister Margaret into that child’s view that is both tolerable, and hopeful, despite the tears it brings to the reader’s eyes.
Malachy and I are back in the bed where Eugene died. I hope he’s
not cold in that white coffin in the graveyard though I know he’s not there
anymore because angels come to the graveyard and open the coffin and he’s
far from the Shannon (River) dampness that kills, up in the sky in heaven with
Oliver and Margret where they have plenty of fish and chips and toffee and no
aunts to bother you, where all the fathers bring home the money from the Labour
Exchange and you don’t have to be running around to pubs to find them. (McCourt, 90).
By using comic relief, McCourt is able to keep the reader from being too overwhelmed with pathos for the despair that so many tragic events, death, starvation, alcoholism, poverty and the disdain of insensitive people. He delivers the relief in the familiar family situations that bring smiles, along with the tears. Like when the mischievous brothers climb downstairs when their parents are sleeping and try on the false teeth that sit on the shelf by the sink, and Malachy is unable to remove his father’s big teeth from his mouth and has to go to the hospital. Although a near tragic event, McCourt is able to find the humor in the situation, and relay it to the reader in a believable child’s voice, telling the story.
McCort’s portrayal of the family living upstairs in a house where they are unable to live downstairs because of the overwhelming odor from the sewage of many other families which is dumped near their front door, although not funny, is made humorous where the inspectors for the Saint Vincent De Paul Society are told by Malachy, still a child, that his family lives in “Italy” a term they have dubbed the upstairs part of the house where they live. (McCourt, 104).
Additionally, when the grandmother stops talking to, and supporting the family, the tragic effect of this fact is reduced when the reason is provided in an anecdote where the main character reveals it was because he puked up God in her backyard after he came home from his first communion, (McCourt, 129), and where he had “God stuck to the roof of (his) mouth.” (McCourt, 128). The reader is compelled to laugh at the thoughts of a child, over a potentially touchy situation that interferes with the grandmother’s faith, and causes a serious rift in the family.
Even when the main character’s mother lies dying, and he and his brothers are brought to their aunt’s house, McCourt creates a moment of levity to relive the reader of her heavy heart when he hears his fat aunt in the other room tinkling, and he is afraid to tell his brothers because he thinks they will all break out laughing: “at the picture in our heads of Aunt Aggie’s big white bum perched on a flowery little chamber pot.” (McCourt, 242). Later, when he delivers a message to an Englishman, is dragged into the house, forced to drink sherry and ends up puking on the rose bush belonging to the man’s wife, and is later dismissed from his job, where he is saving to go to America, the reader is spared the severe disappointment by the humor in the story, and a voice that keeps comic relief in everything it describes. (McCourt, 328-329). The book ends on a note of hilarity where the main character, on his way to America, is about to have sex, and a priest comes to his door. “The bad women bring out sandwiches and pour more beer and when we finish eating they put on Frank Sinatra records and ask if anyone would like to dance. No one says yes because you’d never get up and dance with bad women in the presence of a priest …” Despite all of his suffering, McCourt is as entertaining as his is hilarious. He has an enviable voice, Angela’s Ashes is a tribute to any mother’s memory.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner. New York. 1996.
I loved every page. His book struck me.