WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

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Readers' Review: "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt

When teenager Frank Mccourt sailed from Ireland to America in 1949, he had nothing. With just a primary school education, he managed to attend college and eventually became a high school English teacher. For 30 years, Mccourt entertained his students with tales of his childhood in Limerick. On his last day of teaching, one student told him he should write a memoir. "Angela’s Ashes," published in 1996, vaulted Frank Mccourt from an unknown first-time writer in his sixties to a world-renowned author. It’s the story of a childhood shaped not just by poverty, but also a resilient spirit. Join Diane and her guests for our March Reader’s Review of "Angela’s Ashes."

Program Highlights

Frank McCourt called his memoir "Angela's Ashes" an epic of woe. Despite its portrayal of a wretched childhood, the book inspired millions of readers. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

A Book That Marinated

McCourt, who taught English for many years in New York after moving to the U.S. from his childhood home of Limerick, Ireland, didn't write "Angela's Ashes" until he was 66 years old. "It was really marinated over years and years," Quinn said. "He was working on that book from the time I met him and telling the stories and refining them and turning it into the literary masterpiece it became from a stage pice really, that's how it started," Quinn said.

Writing In A Child's Voice

McCourt once said there was nothing as deadly as the detachment in a child's voice, that it's pure, and that children can tell the truth. Palmer thinks McCourt's decision to tell the story in a child's voice is key to the success of the book. "He manages to achieve the authenticity of the child's voice and in many ways, a simple syntax, repetition, the feeling of not knowing what's going on in centers of power, in the minds of his parents or in the priests' minds or the teachers," Palmer said.

Some In Limerick Resented The Book

There were some people in McCourt's hometown that accused him of lying in his memoir. Quinn said he witnessed one woman accuse McCourt of lying and when pressed about what parts of the book were untrue, she said, "There are no cobblestones in Limerick." But others, Quinn said, noted that things may even have been worse in McCourt's childhood Limerick than he described in the book.

McCourt's Impression On Writers

Collins thinks McCourt's legacy to pass on to other writers will be his handling of unhappiness. "Frank had a way of turning suffering into a kind of boast in this very comic way and leavening the sacred and the serious with a comic touch," Collines said. "No matter how miserable or oppressive the content is, we feel very protected and very protective of the narrator and warmed by his voice," Collins said.

You can read the full transcript here.


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