Poignancy of the Poor: The Incredible Frank McCourt

I try to read a variety of kinds of books, though I am not always successful. I read fiction, and I’m just getting into really good fiction, considering most of what I come across is pretty fluffy. I read nonfiction, some “straight-up” and some creative nonfiction. I read autobiographies and memoirs, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Mindy Kaling’s or Gail Simmons’ or any number of other books by people I admire and adore.

I had fallen in love with Angela’s Ashes when I read it last January for the first time. It both enticed me and repulsed me, which is completely possible in a book, no doubt. This January I reread it for what seemed like the first time in ages. My goal had been to read ‘Tis and take it off my “To Read” shelf, but in order to do so, rereading the first book was key. I was surprised by my quite neutral reaction to the first book and emotional reaction to the second, given that I had loved the first one so much before. Such is the genius of Frank McCourt.

Sometimes when writers create sequels, everything is just downhill from the first book. Do you know this feeling? Maybe it’s that I relate more to what’s going on in the second book (school and learning and a bit of angst), but McCourt compounds on the intense emotions in the first book by pulling on my heart-strings in the second. I will admit, though, that I was into the most emotionally draining bit one Sunday when I decided to search his name on the internet and I found out that he had died. That probably didn’t help with anything.

I have grown up well-off, and I have no idea what it’s like to have to pick up coal off the streets or steal food in order to not grow hungry. Yet Frank McCourt is a brilliant writer because he knows how to make those things feel relatable – picking coal up off the street is humiliation, the lowest of the low, and we all know what that feels like. We all know the feeling of desperately wanting to protect and care for something we feel passionately about. We all know what it feels like to want to chase dreams, sometimes big and over our heads. And we all know the feeling of relief, of payoff when we get there.

Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s memoir recollection of his childhood up until age 19, when he leaves Limerick, Ireland for New York City. The first book ends as the boat pulls into Albany, and the second book, ‘Tis, picks up there, detailing his early years working in America and finding himself through the odd jobs and mixed nationalities, through the classrooms both to learn in and to teach in. He made me cry and want to be a teacher, to feel the joy and the hardships, feeling both sorry for him and wanting to hug him and somehow make things better (even though it was many, many years ago) all at the same time.

A family friend of mine had McCourt as her homeroom teacher at Stuyvesant. I can’t imagine what being in the classroom with him would be like. Granted, being a teenager learning from him and reading his writing are two totally different experiences, but I will digress that I wish I had read his stuff earlier, from a learning and perspective development standpoint but also because I would have loved to meet him knowing who he was.

Frank McCourt is a beautiful writer; reading his work at some point is highly recommended. Angela’s Ashes comes out of the reread with four stars; ‘Tis its first read gets four and a half. Poignant, beautiful, and deeply emotional. I love Frank McCourt. Can’t wait to read Teacher Man on a day when I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Even just the teaching chapters in ‘Tis are incredible. Just like the writer himself.

It’s a beautiful snowy day here (it’s been snowing all day too), so I have to go do some research and finish up Their Eyes Were Watching God. Will report back later.

-Nicole

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