Friday, October 1, 2010

All Souls

Not a new book, but new to me--

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie
Michael Patrick MacDonald (1999, Ballantine Books)

In 1966, Michael Patrick MacDonald was born into a family with no father, and eight kids; that’s not counting the child he replaced, Patrick Michael MacDonald, who had died at three weeks of age, of an illness that a non-impoverished child might have survived. But ambulances didn’t go into Boston’s Columbia Points housing projects, and hospitals would only do so much for people who couldn’t pay.
Helen MacDonald got her family out of the projects for a while, by moving to Jamaica Plain, to an apartment in her parents’ house. How do you fit a family of nine into a two-bedroom apartment? Easy--Mom sleeps on the couch, two girls in one bedroom, and, in the other, six boys on mattresses on the floor, like so many pups.

No bedtimes, no mealtimes--to me, this is a nightmare from another planet; to the MacDonalds, it was just everyday life. When the family got too rowdy for the grandparents, they moved back to South Boston, this time to the Old Colony projects. They took a third floor apartment with six rooms, and a lavish supply of cockroaches. Southie nonetheless looks like ‘the best place in the world’, according to the dictates of Southie pride, a distillation of Irish pride brought down from the legions of immigrants who made Boston home in the face of formidable social and economic obstacles. The Old Colony projects were violent, run down, and under the sway of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s* Irish mob. After a few fistfights, and a few pranks, the MacDonalds found their place.

Like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, All Souls is as funny as it is disturbing (or the other way around.) MacDonald presents the poverty, violence, crime, and drugs as simply the way things were: people expected to be at the mercy of the cops, the courts, and the criminals, and that expectation was perfectly fair. Wearing stolen clothing and selling drugs may be terrible choices, but the MacDonalds and their neighbors are not, I remind myself, choosing from the range of choices I enjoy.

In the 1970’s, a Federal desegregation order drove Southie’s better-off inhabitants out to the suburbs; the proportion of single-parent and impoverished families in the neighborhood correspondingly shot up. Kids whose families couldn’t afford parochial schools dropped out in droves, faced with the prospect of being a white minority in a city school even more under-funded than their own. Without excusing the excesses of violence the situation evoked, MacDonald questions the wisdom of trying to improve the condition of poor black Bostonians by mixing them with white Bostonians hardly a whit better off.

As the youngest child of his mother’s first family, Michael MacDonald was the family’s natural witness and storyteller. He grew up to bear witness to the troubles of the neighborhood he loved, and to work for social justice. He made friends with activists from Roxbury and Mattapan, other troubled neighborhoods, more easily than with Boston’s liberals: “Liberals were usually the ones working on social problems, and they never seemed to be able to fit urban poor whites into their world view, which tended to see blacks as the persistent dependent and their own white selves as provider. 
Whatever race guilt they were holding onto, Southie’s poor couldn’t do a thing for their consciences.”

I found All Souls distressing but enlightening. If Americans find anything harder to talk about than race, it’s class; and using race as proxy for class has only muddied the waters. MacDonald lovingly gives names and faces to the victims of urban poverty, who, whether killed by disease, crime, drugs, or suicide, deserved better than they got.

Peace, friends--


*Whitey Bulger’s brother Billy was, for many years, the president of the Massachusetts State Senate. The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr’s book about the power the two of them wielded, is harrowing.