Michael Patrick MacDonald's extraordinary All Souls: A Family Story From Southie tells the story of his South Boston childhood.
St. Patrick’s Dayweekend has come and gone, and with it the traditional parades, music seisuns, colorful costumes and plenty of pints of Guinness hoisted and consumed.
While there will undoubtedly be many people celebrating tomorrow, the actual day of the holiday, many of the revelers have already completed their honoring of one of Ireland’s patron saints.
For those settling back into a quieter week after the weekend festivities and hungering for Irish-American literature, Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls: A Family Story From Southie is an outstanding choice. This lyrical, haunting and ultimately affirming tale of MacDonald’s childhood in South Boston was one of my favorite books when it was first published in 1999, and has held up admirably in the years since then.
I had the privilege to work with MacDonald through Facing History and Ourselves, my employer at the time. I vividly remember sittting in a parking lot outside the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield, Massachusetts and reading a draft of the chapter about Boston busing in the early 70s. The power of Mike’s story and his writing skill instantly convinced me that his book was both going to be aa s significant addition to public conversation and that he was going to become a major cultural presence.
While in many cases I am not accurate, in this instance my predictions were both right.
All Souls sparked all kinds of heated discussions about race, class and community in Boston and throughout the country-close to 10 years later, passionate comments are still being posted on Amazon’s web site-Mike won major literary awards, and led to his eventual agreement to write a screenplay that director Ron Shelton of Bull Durham fame will bring to the screen.
I look forward to seeing the movie.
All Souls is MacDonald’s story of growing up in South Boston, known as Southie by the residents, during the 70s and 80s. I grew up in Brookline, a nearby suburb, and am about five months older than Mike, so reading his work was a vivid reminder of all that he did, and I did not, experience.
The residents routinely call Southie the best neighborhood in the world, repeating like a mantra the assertion that bad things like drugs, poverty, gangs and violence only happen in black communities like Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, even as they live in one of the nation’s poorest areas and attend funeral after funeral for Southie’s murdered and drug addicted youth.
MacDonald attended plenty for members of his own family.
He lost three of his 10 siblings to violence-one allegedly killed himself while in police custody, another was murdered in the aftermath of a robbery, and a third threw himself off the roof of the Old Colony Housing Project where the family lived-while a fourth sibling died of pneumonia after the hospital did not admit him for treatment in an emergency room. One of his sisters sustained permanent brain damage after being thrown off Old Colony’s roof after an argument about a drug deal.
The book opens at a vigil on All Souls Day, with a grief-stricken MacDonald as a young adult looking out at the audience and being unable to discern who is alive and who is dead. While he wants to honor his siblings’ memories by saying their names, he cannot.
From there, the book moves back in time to MacDonald’s early childhood years in South Boston. His mother, Helen King, an accordion-playing, heels-wearing woman who jogs to keep her figure, is at the book’s center. MacDonald clearly admires her feistiness, grit and spirit, even as her choice in men could have been better.
MacDonald does not flinch from describing the racism in Southie which surfaced so publicly during the busing years, but also shows the class dimensions of the decision made by Judge Arthur Garrity, a resident of suburban Wellesley, which pitted poor communities against each other. He also creates a vivid portrait of a community with fierce loyalties, deep bonds and an understandable sense of being at siege from a hostile outside world.
The hostility is not just from outside.
James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster later proven to be in cahoots with the FBI, was a dominant if shadowy presence in the neighborhood. In a piece for the Boston Globe about Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning film, The Departed, MacDonald describes “the same suffocation that I felt as a kid growing up in a blood-soaked neighborhood, controlled by lies, deceit, and betrayal emanating as much from the halls of power as from Whitey Bulger.
“Watching`The Departed,” my mind’s eye still focused on the exit sign, I relived the panic attacks of my youth, in the aftermath of my brothers ‘ deaths, at a time when we all knew that no one was allowed to talk. We all had to suck it up and move on,” MacDonald wrote for the Globe.
His solution was to get out, to cross the Broadway Bridge and to venture into other neighborhoods. All Souls talks about how MacDonald met with grieving mothers from black communities and found they had more than united than divided them. His activism through helping to create a gun buyback program is part of his healing. His experiences in Kenmore Square’s punk rock scene form the basis for his second book, Easter Rising: An Irish-American Coming Up From Under.
All Souls ends where it began, at a vigil for Southie’s loved ones. Through the journey he has shared with the reader, MacDonald finds the strength to name his brothers and to pay tribute to others who also died too young. While this cannot bring the loved one back to life, it does help to heal and to incorporate the memories of their lives into the living.
More than 10 years ago, after reading the chapter about Boston busing, I told Mike how fortunate we were that he had survived and that he had the courage and skill with words to tell his story. On the week after celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and exactly a week after MacDonald turned 43 years old, I hope that readers who read this remarkable book will agree.