After Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read, I wasn’t sure what to expect from ’Tis. Frank McCourt was born in New York City, but moved back to Ireland with his family as a small child. The fact that young Frank, at the age of 19, was able to escape extreme poverty in Ireland and move back to New York City is an accomplishment by itself. Within several days of arriving, he receives the first of many warnings about the evils of drink and is urged to become acquainted with the New York Public Library – by a bartender. After a period of time working as a janitor at the Biltmore Hotel, the Korean War begins, and within weeks McCourt receives his Army draft notice. After basic training in New Jersey, McCourt is sent to a dog training unit in Germany and avoids combat. Within several weeks, he is selected for Company Clerk training. After his military obligation ends, McCourt returns to New York City and labor in the warehouses on the New York City waterfront.
McCourt’s descriptions of Army life are hilarious, but throughout the first half of the book there are several somber themes that surface again and again. McCourt is extremely naïve about women, wants to break free of the stifling variety of Catholicism that he grew up with in Ireland, and early on after arriving in New York realizes that education is his only way out of a life of manual labor. McCourt also learns very quickly that in the United States, extreme racial divisions have replaced the class divisions of Ireland.
This reviewer thought it remarkable that from the time of his arrival in New York City onward, McCourt repeatedly encounters individuals (sometimes rank strangers) who recommend works of literature and encourage his initial ambivalence about pursuing education. I guess you could call them literary angels.
McCourt eventually overcomes his ambivalence about education and starts a college degree at New York University – without a high school diploma. After graduation, McCourt lands his first teaching position at a Vocational High School on Staten Island. Over the next decade or so there’s an interesting contrast in the book between Frank, pursuing a career in education, and younger brother Malachy McCourt, who has purchased a bar, is still deeply immersed in Irish culture, and has a drinking problem. McCourt earns a Masters degree from Brooklyn College and better jobs follow, but throughout the book he effectively describes the pull of Irish immigrant culture – where he doesn’t really fit anymore – versus his ambition to live a “normal” middle-class American life.
McCourt has a great eye for detail, society, and the randomness of life, and describes a journey out of poverty that is hard for most readers to imagine.