Frank McCourt,
'Tis: A Memoir
(Scribner, 1999)

"'Tis" is the perfect last word of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning celebration of his devastating poverty and resilience as a child born in depression-era Brooklyn and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. That one word brought sigh-inducing resolution to the story and simultaneously sparked a thirst for more remarkable images.

'Tis: A Memoir is the less than perfect yet compelling sequel to Angela's Ashes which continues McCourt's life journey after his return to New York in 1949 as an awkward but hopeful 19-year-old with bad eyes and a brogue that becomes both a charm and a curse. Other Irish immigrants assist young Frank with jobs sweeping floors in a hotel and loading trucks in the warehouse district while admonishing him to stay with his own kind.

Lusting for an education and feeling limited by his opportunities, McCourt welcomes his draft notice and becomes the army's most proficient typist who ever wanted to be a dog trainer. After his discharge, he summons his courage and requests admittance to New York University's College of Education based on voracious reading habits, rather than a high school diploma. The story continues through his teaching career and a passionate but troubled love with a beautiful New England socialite.

One by one, Frank's younger brothers, Malachy, Michael and Alphie, also arrive in New York, a transition that provides the stability of more recurring characters rather than the short-lived encounters with aquantainces earlier in the book. Their mother, Angela, also revisits New York, though it is considerably more difficult to sympathize with the demanding matriarch this time around.

While McCourt's engaging style and irrepressible voice flows through these pages, 'Tis lacks the luminescent quality of Angela's Ashes. Despite the family's lack of food and adequate housing or clothing, the characters revealed their young souls. In the sequel, McCourt seems to recognize that he can't recapture that innocence and tries to piggyback onto the emotional impact of the earlier book. Sometimes it works, as when he walks the streets of Limerick reminiscing. It's certainly important for those who didn't read the earlier work to understand vital background information, but by the fifth time he wishes he "didn't give a fiddler's fart" just like his Uncle Pa Keating, the redundancy began to annoy.

Admittedly, the inescapable comparisons to Angela's Ashes are unfair to this book, which does have grand moments. Frank's befriending of Horace, a black employee on the warehouse docks, earns both of them harassment from the white workers, but cements his belief in education. Another memorable image involves a nun caressing and calming the mentally unstable landlady Mrs. Klein, who lives with her son "Michael, what's left of him," an American citizen traumatized in a concentration camp.

One aspect of 'Tis that is a delight for those who relished Angela's Ashes is the recognition of the first book's inception. During one of his first university courses, Frank writes an essay about his childhood experience of acquiring a bed for the four brothers from a charity and bringing it home on a wobbly pram. He's both embarrassed to be sharing the devastation of his childhood and exhilarated by the response to his writing as his professor encourages him to explore his "rich" past.

'Tis doesn't quite equal the poignancy of Angela's Ashes, but that would be asking the impossible. It allows the remarkable images to continue and that -- despite minor flaws -- is a gift readers will appreciate.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]



Buy 'Tis from Amazon.com.