A Pulitzer Prize–winning, #1 New York Times bestseller, Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s masterful memoir of his childhood in Ireland.
“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 miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy—exasperating, irresponsible, and beguiling—does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.
Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors—yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness.
Angela’s Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt’s astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.
Countless memoirs have been published recently, yet Angela's Ashes stands out. What makes this memoir so unique and compelling?
Discuss the originality and immediacy of Frank McCourt's voice and the style he employs—i.e., his sparing use of commas, the absence of quotation marks. How, through a child's voice and perspective, does McCourt establish and maintain credibility?
Ever present in Angela's Ashes is the Catholic Church. In what ways does the Catholic Church of McCourt's Ireland hurt its members and limit their experience? How does the Church protect and nurture its followers? What is Frank's attitude toward the Church?
McCourt writes: "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland." Was this your impression of Frank McCourt's father? How can Frank write about his father without bitterness? What part did Malachy play in creating the person that Frank eventually became?
Women—in particular mothers—play a significant role in Angela's Ashes. Recall the scenes between Angela and her children; the MacNamara sisters (Delia and Philomena) and Malachy; Aunt Aggie and young Frank; Angela and her own mother. In what ways do these interactions reflect the roles of women within their families? Discuss the ways in which Angela struggles to keep her family together in the most desperate of circumstances.
McCourt titles his memoir Angela's Ashes, after his mother. What significance does the phrase "Angela's Ashes" acquire by the end of the book?
Despite the McCourts' horrid poverty, mind-numbing starvation, and devastating losses, Angela's Ashes is not a tragic memoir. In fact, it is uplifting, triumphant even. How does McCourt accomplish this?
Irish songs and lyrics are prominently featured in Angela's Ashes. How do these lyrics contribute to the unique voice of this memoir? How does music affect Frank's experiences? How do you think it continues to influence his memories of his childhood?
Frank spent the first four years of his life in the United States. How do his experiences in America affect Frank's years in Ireland?
Frank McCourt (1930–2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, Angela’s Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education.
"Every once in a while, a lucky reader comes across a book that makes an indelible impression, a book you immediately want to share with everyone around you....Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveal all we need to know about being human."
– Linnea Lannon, Detroit Free Press
"A classic modern memoir...stunning."
– Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A splendid memoir, both funny and forgiving."
"A monument to the self-perpetuating power of the human spirit...an accomplished, authoritative, and shimmering example of the memoirist's art."
– Margaria Fichtner, The Miami Herald
"A spellbinding memoir of childhood that swerves flawlessly between aching sadness and desperate humor...a work of lasting beauty."
– Peter Finn, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"This memoir is an instant classic of the genre...good enough to be the capstone of a distinguished writing career; let's hope it's only the beginning of Frank McCourt's."
– Nina King, The Washington Post Book World
"Frank McCourt's lyrical Irish voice will draw comparisons to Joyce. It's that seductive, that hilarious."
– Mary Karr
"Angela's Ashes is a chronicle of grown-ups at the mercy of life and children at the mercy of grown-ups, and it is such a marriage of pathos and humor that you never know whether to weep or roar -- and find yourself doing both at once. Fear not: it ends happily; but all along, through each fresh horror of the narrative, you win be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter. McCourt deserves whatever glittering prizes are lying around. Give the man a Prix de Rome, a Croix de Guerre, a Pulitzer, a Nobel, a Templeton -- and while you're at it pull him another Guinness!"
– Thomas Cahill
"Irish American Magazine Frank McCourt has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, has transformed it into a triumphant work of art. This book will be read when all of us are gone."
– Pete Hamill
"The power of this memoir is that it makes you believe the claim: that despite the rags and hunger and pain, love and strength do come out of misery -- as well as a page-turner of a book. And though the experience it tells of was individual, the point -- and the story -- is universal."