Despite Frank McCourt’s horrid poverty, tiresome starvation and devastating losses, Angela’s Ashes is not a tragic memoir. It is in fact up lifting, funny and at times triumphant. How does Frank McCourt as a writer accomplish this?
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable child hood: 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”, writes Frank McCourt of his early life. Although Frank McCourt’s autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, paints a picture of both terrible poverty and struggles, this text is appealing and up lifting because of its focus on both humor and hope. McCourt’s text shows the determination people living in dreadful conditions must have in order to rise above their situations and make better lives for themselves and their families. The effect of the story, although often distressing and sad, is not depressing. Frank as the young narrator describes his life events without bitterness, anger, or blame. Poverty and hardship are treated simply as if they are a fact of life, and in spite of the hard circumstances, many episodes during the novel are hilarious.
Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930, just after the beginning of the Great Depression. During this time, millions of people around the world were unemployed and struggling to survive. Franks father, Malachy McCourt, struggled to obtain work and lost it easily due to his alcoholism. His mother, Angela McCourt, being a good catholic wife produced five babies in four years, leaving her unable to provide the most basic care for her children. When the baby, Margaret, died due to the shocking living conditions in Brooklyn, Angela subsided into clinical depression, which went untreated. Other women in the building where the McCourt’s lived looked after the children until Angela’s cousins arranged for the family to return to Ireland.
The picture of Brooklyn presented by McCourt is almost cruelly miserable. In the first few chapters of the text there are moments of gentle humor and irony. For example, franks full immersion baptism when his mother dropped him into the font seemed to be a protestant symbol to the family. McCourt’s humor has two main sources: childish innocence, including school boy humor, and the funny situations to which poverty can reduce people.