Monday, December 11, 2006

Angela's Ashes and Penny Apples

I recently finished reading Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt's memoirs of his 1930s and 1940s childhood in the worst slums of Limerick. Like most people I had seen the movie. Four years ago I read Bill Cullen's memoirs of childhood from the slightly later period of 1940s and 1950s Dublin slums in It's a Long Way from Penny Apples. It's tempting to compare and contrast the two books from my own point of view.

Both books were the author's first work which they each wrote when aged in their sixties. Both have a simplicity of style and directness. Frank being a lecturer, had a bit more flair. Bill I'm sure would admit he is no great natural writer and it particularly shows in the school essay-like style in the very early sections. In particular the conversations he attributed to his parents during the Strand bombings lacked credibility - very Famous Five stereotype nonsense - and in fact I was close to giving up on the book in the first 20-30 pages. Bill admits he did get much help in constructing the book but as the early imagination and third party sourced sections dissolve into his own actual childhood memories the power of his experiences becomes captivating and even sharpen his story telling abilities.

Angela's Ashes of course has enjoyed huge success. It helped that Frank lived in USA and was originally born there and success in the USA for a book is something to savour. And there's the movie to boost revenue and further energise the book sales. So Frank made a ton of money no doubt. Bill Cullen on the other hand was already fairly wealthy when he wrote Penny Apples and book proceeds he gave to the Irish Youth Foundation. I'm guessing its sales are nothing near the level of Angela's Ashes and that it is predominantly an Irish market. However, I'm leaving this scaling area aside and I'm judging the two books purely on their own merits to me as a reader.

Frank McCourt writes Angela's Ashes from the perspective of the child he was at the time. In that sense it is honest, simple, and contains the humour associated with a child's view. The poverty, illness and tragedies which his family endured were overwhelming. Even by local standards in Limerick at the time they were near the edge of destruction. As a child Frank was aware that they were very poor.

In contrast Penny Apples is written very much from Bill Cullen's perspective as a modern adult and includes a useful macro view of the contemporary influential people and local history. Included are studies of people and institutes like Alfie Byrne, Hector Grey, Louis Copeland, the Mitchels rosary bead factory, the Magdalene laundries and several interesting early first hand experiences of Charles Haughey and Haughey Boland Accountants. Even Rock Hudson makes an appearance on a visit to Dublin and we get an early insight into his sexual orientation and possible predatory tendency with children. The stories he related from his granny Molly Darcy were priceless treasures. One included her first hand experience of the 1916 leaders being marched down Sackville Street. Another was from when she was a teenager working in a big Dublin house and an old man working there told her about his harrowing childhood experience of he and his parents and siblings being evicted during the Famine. This was very captivating - to think there are still links to firsthand stories of the Famine.

I thought Bill gave a refreshingly honest view of the Catholic clergy as he saw it. The priests, nuns and bothers usually came out better than in many other stories from this era. It's a view I would have in general agreed with from my own slightly later experiences in Dublin. The religious orders came out somewhat worse in Angela's Ashes. In spite of considerable hardship Penny Apples was rich in optimism, survival and business ideas from a very ingenious yet commonsense angle. I found the variety of the book very enriching. I do understand Bill's view that they were poor as children, but that as children they didn't know they were poor. Everyone else around them was similar. Frank's situation in Limerick was much worse and more depressing and there seemed to be no escape except for a distant notion of somehow getting to America.

Many common threads are clear in both books. The huge influence of the Catholic Church, poverty, illness, children dying, the demon drink. In addition, strong women stand out - maternal grandmothers in particular and contrasted with weak or unhelpful fathers. I get an impression that Bill over-glamorised his parents and relations to some degree but he did say negative things as his father went a bit off the rails later. It's possible that - as Bill has lived his full life in Ireland - he is conscious of many living family and friends and decided to steer a cautious approach. Frank McCourt was probably somewhat freer being in USA and you do detect greater openness to his descriptions of people, although it tends to lack depth.

Both books are important works which capture an Ireland which has gone. In all truth I took away much more from Penny Apples. It was so multidimensional in what it touched on, the events and people encountered were fascinating. I was enriched with knowledge. It also is a tidy work in that it progresses logically and reaches a clean ending. It's main downside was dialogues attributed to people - it was usually oversimplistic and often lacked credibility. Penny Apples is no masterclass literature in presentation skills but it's raw content is brilliant.

Angela's Ashes was reasonably well written but I found it too long, too simple and continuous in one-dimensional wall-to-wall poverty as seen by a child. It was certainly poignant, sad, mixed with child humour, but it could have been told with more attention to the variety of characters and extract a bigger picture. For instance - the title of the book leans on images of his mother staring quietly into the ashes in the fireplace. She was a complex character and must have had many thoughts to wrestle with. I would have loved to understand her and others more. There are many clues but just not enough analysis. It's a feature of telling the book from a child's firsthand view - you lose Frank's analytical perspective as an adult looking back. I suppose he was leaving the reader to think things through. The closest he came to serious analysis was in the powerful opening page overview before he drifts into the child vision. Also the book ends as Frank leaves Ireland so in that sense it is an incomplete view of his life (his later book 'Tis covers the rest). Angela's Ashes is a very good book and the poverty was painfully hit home, but I think it just missed out on a genuine opportunity to be a classical masterpiece.

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