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In 1996, from the dross of an impoverished Irish upbringing, Frank McCourt, who has died of skin cancer, spun literary gold with his first book, a memoir called Angela’s Ashes. Although McCourt called it an “epic of woe,” readers bought 4 million copies, enthralled by the volume’s hope and humor. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood,” ran a typical passage. “The happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”
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McCourt was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the eldest son of an immigrant Irish family that returned to the old country when he was 4, said The Washington Post. His house in Limerick, which had no electricity or running water, was next to a public lavatory that often flooded the floor. Barely supported by an alcoholic father, the McCourts survived mainly on tea and bread; “a discarded apple peel or a single boiled egg, cut into slices for the whole family, was considered a treat.” Three of McCourt’s six siblings died young, and he almost perished from typhoid fever at 10. McCourt made it back to the United States in 1949 and, as he recalled, “All I had was this story.”
That story took decades to write, said the Los Angeles Times. From 1957 to 1987, McCourt taught English in New York City high schools, where he “would regale his students with his horrifying and often hilarious tales of his childhood,” which he continually tried to put on paper. But it wasn’t until 1994, “after observing his young granddaughter developing her vocabulary,” that McCourt hit upon the solution of telling his tale through a child’s eyes. Published two years later, Angela’s Ashes won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Some readers insisted McCourt had exaggerated his hardships for dramatic effect. But his brother Malachy, also an author, responded, “In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote. Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us.”
McCourt agreed. “I think there’s something about the Irish experience—that we had to have a sense of humor or die,” he said. McCourt is survived by his third wife and a daughter.
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