By opening line standards, “Angela’s Ashes” doesn’t rank especially well, certainly no “Moby Dick” or “David Copperfield.”
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all,” it began.
I must admit it did not grab me the first time I read it. Everyone has a story about their childhood, and some measure of difficulty is universal to one extent or another among us.
I finished the first paragraph, and put the book down. I grabbed the next in the pile of books I thought I should, or at least would, read and didn’t return to it until all the others had been read.
When I’d finished reading “Angela’s Ashes,” though, I returned to the first page, read that line again, and wondered myself how he’d survived. Frank McCourt’s Limerick life was tragic and sad, yet told in such a magical and hope-filled way, even when there was no reason for hope.
He passed on over the weekend, and this morning I raised my cup of tea to him.
There are story tellers in this world, and then there are the Irish. That’s what I was told in my childhood, just a couple of generations removed from County Donegal. My Irish grandfather engaged me with his own stories, including one of the air craft carrier he claims to have served on in “the war” - - the USS Tuskaurora, 14 decks and no bottom. I believed it with all my wits and heart, such is the power of a story teller, if not the story.
There were some in Ireland at the time the book was published who believed McCourt had gone a wee bit too far in his story telling. Perhaps he did, but does it really matter? The power is in the telling, and McCourt told a good story.
I never had the honor to meet Frank McCourt, although I did meet his brother, Malachy, another great teller of stories. A mutual friend who had raised his family in the same neighborhood as the brothers, all of whose wives and children were acquaintances at the local playgrounds, once told me that the McCourts were like royalty there after their books had been published. They certainly were held in that regard in my house.
Little Frankie McCourt’s story-telling earned him both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Angela’s Ashes” remains one of my favorite reads. His lyric writing, the music of his life on both sides of the pond, brought tears and smiles.
I’d like to imagine a final note written by his hand, perhaps something from an Irish song . . .
“Then fill to me the parting glass,
Good night and joy be with you all.”