Angela's Ashes

Angela’s AshesLiteracy Weblog)

I’m reading Frank McCort’s Angela’s Ashes. I recently showed a video, “People Like Us,” to my Seminar in Thinking and Writing students. In the video, a talking head says that everyone with class aspirations has a copy of Angela’s Ashes, but that nobody has read it. Kind of like the opposite of The Bridges of Madison County, which people with class apsirations tried to hide.

Anyway, my parents passed on their copy of AA to me, and there it was, sitting on the shelf, so I started reading it. I think one or two of the short stories in James Joyce’s The Dubliners does a better job of capturing the misearable and pathetic state of the Irish destitue, though the motion of the family from America back to Ireland offers an interesting twist; the McCort children are taunted for being Yanks.

I’m about half way through the book and the narrator is still only about five or six years old. He does a great job jerking your heart around, as when the drunken lout of a father eases his baby’s raspy breathing by sucking the snot out of his nose — not exactly a classy thing to do, but his wife looks at him adoringly for it. Then, after a long bout of unemployment, the father finally lands a job, drinks his wages on Friday night (again), is so drunk he misses work the next day, and loses his job.

Pathetic.

It’s supposed to be a memoir, which means that it all really happened that way and I can’t fault the narrator for unrealistic plot twists or maudlin attempts at melodrama. Most of the time, the childish eyes of the narrator can’t see clearly enough to criticize. The effect is similar to that of Benjy’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury — Benjy is an objective reporter who offers no sense of awareness outside himself (except for the final few lines, where he indicates that he trusts Caddy when she tells him he has been dreaming).

But in the tale of the father losing his job, I felt myself resisting the narrator’s attempt to pull my heartstrings. Am I a bad person because I roll my eyes at the predicability of the plot? Am I not quite able to enter into the young narrator’s world? Am I too reluctant to give up my romantic view of the Irish side of my family (on my mother’s mother’s side)?

While driving Torill Mortensen to the airport after her visit to Seton Hill, I learned a very enligthenting discussion about the way Europeans feel about their distant American relations who return to the villages of their ancestors after two or three generations of no contact with their roots. It’s certainly not the fault of these travellers that their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents never came back to their ancestral villages, and I can certainly see it is ridiculous to suggest that people should drop what they are doing to throw a prade for distant relations who wish to play detective in the cemeteries and church record offices. Torill mentioned that, to those who stayed, the Americans who come back are the decendents of people who left. America wouldn’t be what it is today if it had not been for the passion and drive of generations of people who left their homelands in search of building a better life for themselves.

Maybe the book will change eventually, but when I read Angela’s Ashes, I can’t help but think to myself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And I don’t like thinking that way, mostly because it’s not exactly fashionable for Americans to show their patriotism in international circles these days.

This isn’t a very intellectual blog entry, but I’m gonna submit it anyway.