Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this plainly written, powerful memoir, MacDonald, now 32, details not only his own story of growing up in Southie, Boston's Irish Catholic enclave, but examines the myriad ways in which the media and law enforcement agencies exploit marginalized working-class communities. MacDonald was one of nine children born (of several fathers) to his mother, Helen MacDonald, a colorful woman who played the accordion in local Irish pubs to supplement her welfare checks. Having grown up in the Old Colony housing project, he describes his neighbors' indigence and pride of place, as well as their blatant racism (in 1975 the anti-busing riots in Southie made national headlines) and their deep denial of the organized crime and entrenched drug culture that was destroying the youth and social fabric. MacDonald's account is filled with vivid episodes: of his brother Davey's horrific incarceration in Mass Mental and ultimate suicide; of the time Helen took her older kids to the hospital, where her current lover was a patient, to beat him up after he denied he was the father of the child she was carrying; of the murder of his brother Frankie by his compatriots after the police shot him in an armored-car robbery. But perhaps most shocking is the accusation that the FBI was paying Southie's leading gangster, Whitey Bulger, as an informant although they knew he was the neighborhood kingpin. MacDonald, who now works on multiracial social projects in Boston, does not excuse Southie's racism, but he paints a frightening portrait of a community under intense economic and social stress, issuing a forceful plea for understanding and justice. Agent, Palmer and Dodge. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Seth A. Gitell
What makes the book significant, however, are not the neighborhood secrets MacDonald discloses, but the possibility it holds out for a new way to think and talk about race in America...the gritty saga of the South Boston MacDonalds should be read by anybody looking for a gripping and full account of poverty in urban America.
The Weekly Standard
An incendiary, moving book that startles on nearly every page. The notorious anti-busing riots of 1974 forever altered the insular working-class Irish community of South Boston, branding it indelibly as a dangerous, racist enclave. Anti-violence activist MacDonald grew up there and lost four out of eight siblings to violence in those dark times; his debut assesses both his family history, and related secret tales of class strife, bigotry, corruption, and vanished lives. MacDonald utilizes the classically Irish viewpoint of the stoic child to re-create a harsh arena of a 1970s ghetto and urban poverty. His single "Ma" felt blessed when a local politician secured her entrance to the majority-Irish Old Colony project, "the best place in the world"; once there, the MacDonalds had to prove their mettle against delinquents with shotguns, thus acquiring the patina of "craziness" necessary for survival. At first, the nuances of color seemed minor against a vividly rendered backdrop of economic difficulty and the depraved mainstreaming of hard drugs and street crime. Then came the riots; MacDonald's surefooted (neither hardened nor sentimental) narrative takes us through the years of malaise and violence that followed, as politically connected gangsters, such as the notorious Whitey Bulger, expanded the area's drug trade while violently enforcing a macho myth of silent Southie unity, itself built on the long-burnished notion that the white community was somehow "different" from such similarly working-class, embattled black areas as Roxbury. This explication of how such phenomena of white class-consciousness encouraged the wholesale deterioration of his neighborhood and contributed to the demiseof some 250 young people is a devastating cultural indictment. MacDonald's nimble prose and detailed recall of grim times long past make for luminous reading; his hard-won conception of how ghettoized poverty spawns localized violence, and the dignity he brings to lives snuffed out in chaos, gives All Souls a moral urgency usually lacking in current memoir or crime prose. A remarkable work. (Author tour)
From the Publisher
[A] rare and compelling book . . . Highly passionate.—Liam Ford, Chicago Tribune
"His anecdotes have the searing power of a redeemed sinner's fiery sermon. His swift, conversational style sweeps you into his anger and sorrow. He is a born rabble-rouser whose emotional power numbs the reader's reason."—Charles Carberry, USA Today
"All Souls is a memoir filled with desperation and despair, but there is also hope in it . . . MacDonald's discovery of his vocation in neighborhood activism is a refreshing change from most memoirs, which so often . . . are largely concerned with describing an ascent to celebrityhood." —Julian Moynahan, New York Review of Books
"Michael Patrick MacDonald takes us on a heartbreaking tour of his South Boston family." —Frank McCourt, Irish America Magazine
"An incendiary, moving book that startles on nearly every page . . . MacDonald's nimble prose and detailed recall of grim times long past make for luminous reading; his hard-won conception of how ghettoized poverty spawns localized violence, and the dignity he brings to lives snuffed out in chaos, gives All Souls a moral urgency usually lacking in current memoir or crime prose. A remarkable work." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"All Souls leavens tragedy with dashes of humor but preserves the heartbreaking details."—Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review
"If you were charmed by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes but wished at times the author would have got out of the way of his own beguiling style, try All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Michael Patrick MacDonald's guileless and powerful memoir of precarious life and early death in Boston's Irish ghetto."—R. Z. Sheppard, Time
"A must read . . . All Souls is poised to become one of the most significant Irish American books of the era."—Irish Edition
"MacDonald has a gift for narrative, an eye for social detail, and a voice of earned authenticity."—Jack Beatty, Author of The Rascal
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 5: “Looking for Whitey”
Another one to make you a slave.’’ that’s what Nana said to Ma, looking at Seamus in the nursery at St. Margaret’s Hospital. Ma just laughed at her. She’d never gotten along with her mother—Ma said she was old-fashioned—and there was no sense in trying to relate now. Nana and Grandpa hadn’t even known Ma was pregnant until she went into labor. Ma kept it from them, knowing they’d judge her and her baby since she wasn’t married to Coley. She just wore big coats and held her big leather pocketbook in front of her stomach whenever she went to their house, among those lace curtain Irish neighbors in West Roxbury. Nana and Grandpa knew about me being illegitimate, but they never mentioned it, since most of their friends from Ireland thought that I’d come from Ma’s marriage to Mac—‘‘a bad marriage but a marriage before God nonetheless,’’ as Father Murphy said. I was close to Nana; she was my godmother and had been Patrick’s godmother too, so she took a special liking to me. I just had to brush off the bad things she said about Ma, and now I had to ignore her frowning gaze at Seamus. To make things more confusing for Nana and Grandpa’s Irish friends, Ma gave Seamus the last name King, from her short marriage to Bob King, whom they’d barely met. She had to put some name on the birth certificate; she knew welfare would never find Bob King, since he was probably homeless; and even though she’d gotten back together with Coley, we couldn’t be sure he’d stick around for too long. Ma was looking out for us again, making sure our welfare check wouldn’t be cut.
All I knew was that I was thrilled to come straight home from St. Augustine’s every day to see my little brother. I remember how clean and fresh he smelled even when he spit up on my shoulder. I was tired of all the battles, the rock throwing and the protests, and I was excited to be around something so new as Seamus. I just wanted to protect him, to keep him as fresh as the day he was born; and I became aware of how hard that might be when I started to take him out for a push around the front courtyard of Patterson Way, with all the buckled-up concrete catching the carriage wheels.
Ma liked me to take him outside every day after school. She always complained that the air in our apartment was bad for kids, with the smell of cockroach exterminator and the radiators going full blast even on a warm Indian summer afternoon. It seemed as if all the kids in the neighborhood had asthma. I’d walk Seamus in circles, around and around, on the beaten-up cement out front. The women on the stoop followed me with their eyes. I kept count so I could tell Ma how many times I’d pushed him around. ‘‘That’s twenty-nine times already!’’ I’d yell up to Ma. ‘‘Keep going,’’ she’d say from the window, ‘‘the air’s good for him.’’ I liked minding Seamus, but everyone wanted to come and look at him and smile in his face. Chickie was friendly to us now, and one time she came up to us, fixing Seamus’s blanket in a motherly way, and yelling up to Ma that all Ma’s kids looked like movie stars. Then she started talking baby talk. ‘‘Hiyaaa, hiyeee sweetie,’’ she sang, in the sweetest softest voice I’d ever heard coming out of her mouth. I started to see how babies did that to people, changed their voices and everything, no matter how mean or tough they seemed right before they’d laid eyes on the baby. Skoochie came by to show me the baby clothes she’d stolen downtown, taking them out of bags and sizing them up against Seamus, lying in his carriage. I sent her up to Ma, and she soon came back downstairs, folding up her empty bags. With Ma’s money in her hand, she called over to some teenagers I’d heard were selling pills. I just kept walking in circles, watching the action in the streets. Kids my age would ask if they could push the carriage, and when I let them they’d start running fast right off the curb toward the traffic—for some excitement, I guess. That kind of stuff made me frantic and nearly got me into a few fistfights, but everyone usually backed down from me, since the kids in the neighborhood were still afraid of my big brothers.
The worst thing about minding Seamus was when I’d hear a neighbor down the street calling someone a douchebag or a cunt. I couldn’t believe they’d say those words in front of a baby. Of course, they didn’t think they were doing it in front of a baby—they were down the street. I half realized that since Seamus was only a few weeks old anyway, it probably didn’t matter what he heard; and when they’d come up to the carriage the same people who’d just called someone a douchebag would start talking baby talk to him and tucking in his blanket. But I couldn’t help worrying for Seamus, with his fresh clean baby smell and brand-new terry cloth baby suits, in the middle of all this anger and confusion and drug dealing and fighting. I still loved our world of Old Colony, but I wasn’t always so sure about that now that I had a little brother to wheel around the broken-up courtyards.
After Seamus was born, the Boston Housing Authority broke down one of our walls for us, adding a second apartment. Only three families in Old Colony had a ‘‘breakthrough’’ apartment. Ma had pulled a few strings with the local politicians she’d met by volunteering for the South Boston Information Center and by playing the accordion at political fundraisers. We were the envy of the neighborhood now, with ten rooms in all, including two kitchens and two bathrooms. We had so much space that Ma had to start collecting furniture from the dumpster to fill up the house. I’d yell out the window to Ma, begging her to stop going through the dumpster, pulling out chairs. I didn’t want anyone to see her. My friends all bragged about their expensive living room sets stolen from the backs of trucks. But she’d just play it up, dragging some contraption behind her up three flights of stairs, ‘‘Look at this beautiful recliner!’’ It was really a lawn chair that one of the ladies on the stoop had left outside, expecting it to still be there when she got back. I was always afraid to let friends in the house, because they might find something that they’d thrown in the trash or just left outside.
We had it made now. Most of us had our own bedroom, and I had a feeling we would be in Old Colony forever. Ten fully furnished rooms with wall-to-wall green, blue, and orange shag rugs; free heat, light, and gas; Skoochie’s designer-label clothes for a quarter the price; all the excitement right out our front windows—‘‘Scenes better than anything on the TV,’’ Ma said—and the thrill of being on the inside of the exclusive world of Old Colony. We were privileged. And even though I was still a little worried for Seamus, I could convince myself, like everyone else, that we were in a superior kingdom.