Tag Archives: All Souls: A Family Story From Southie

Michael Patrick MacDonald comes to Chicago for iBAM!

Friend and award-winning author Michael Patrick MacDonald will be among the artists participating in the Irish Book Arts & Music Celebration.

It’s been a decade since Beacon Press first published MacDonald’s searing memoir, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, and he’s gone around to Boston schools recently talking about his and their experience.

The longest paper he had written before that was a 20-page paper for a class at UMass-Boston.

MacDonald tells the story of growing up in busing-era South Boston, where a generation of young people were lost to drugs, murder and other mayhem, all the while declaring that Southie was the best place in the world and that bad things only happened in black neighborhoods.

His family suffered greatly. 

One older brother was murdered by fellow bank robbers.  Another died mysteriously in a jail cell.  A third killed himself by throwing himself from the roof of the Old Colony housing project in which MacDonald and his many siblings lived.

A sister was permanently disabled after being thrown off the roof in an argument over drugs.

Through it all, Helen King, MacDonald’s accordion playing and jogging mother, retains her zest for life.

MacDonald does not shy away from tackling the racism in the community that made international headlines, but also makes it clear that he has little sympathy for the liberal policy makers who pitted two poor and under resourced communities against each other.

The book begins and ends with MacDonald at a vigil for his brothers.  By the end, through his journey, he is able to say his brothers’ names. 

If All Souls is the story of his growing up, Easter Rising, his second book, tells how he got out of Southie.

Music was a key.

Punk music, in fact.

MacDonald shows the importance of physically removing himself from Southie’s dangerous streets and immersing himself in the Kenmore Square punk scene played a critical role in his survival.  His journey in this book takes him to England and to his native Ireland, again with his intrepid mother.

A different and slightly less gritty work than his debut, Easter Rising offers valuable insight into how people in enormously adverse circumstances find a way to survive, and even flourish.

I first met MacDonald in the late 90s after seeing Margaret Lazarus’ film Strong at the Broken Places and an installation at the Charlestown Monument.   I was working for Facing History at the time and got him a number of speaking gigs while he was working on All Souls.

I remember vividly reading the busing chapter he had shared with me while waiting for an appointment at the Rebecca Johnson Middle School.  The image of a pig’s head he described stays with me still.

I told him then that I was glad he had survived, grateful he had shared the work with me, and confident that it would find a very wide audience.

Dunreith and I hope to get together with Mike sometime this weekend.  I highly recommend both of his books.


David Russell’s post about his favorite non-fiction books-others are welcome!


David Russell doesn't only travel to Ghana; he's also assembled his list of non-fiction favorites.

David Russell doesn't only travel to Ghana; he's also assembled his list of non-fiction favorites.


Dear friend, master teacher, hoopster, dedicated family man, world traveler, passionate reader and Black History Month quiz winner David Russell has come up with this response to yesterday’s post about Alex Kotlowitz’s favorite non-fiction books.  I have taken the editorial liberty of breaking Dave’s comment into paragraphs: 


“I want to give your question about favorite non-fiction books some thought. How can you decide? I think for me it’ll be the books that influenced me the most, that I’ve gone back to or have thought about the most after reading.


Right away Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren is there; I love the description of the ending of the year: she had not finished, she had just run out of time. That speaks so powerfully to me as a teacher; you always want to and need to do more.

Also Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground. I was a relative newcomer to Boston when it came out, and it gave me the deepened understanding of the recent history of the city that I craved. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed to finish a book; I wished it could have just kept going and going.

Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind could perhaps be number one. I was so moved by the American odyssey presented in the book, but perhaps even more so by the reality that if it was hard and uncertain that Cedric make it, with his skills, determination, and help, how remote is the possibility for others? It is such an unimaginable distance that must be traversed.

All Souls, which lists the blogger in its credits (!), was gripping and gave voice to a story not at that point adequately presented. I loved its demonstration that family disfunction and violence do not have to be related to color (duh, but not enough established in the public mind).

The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom by Herbert Gutman was seminal for me in its proof of the resilience of the black family; the simple thesis that slavery made family life impossible and that this is what has caused 20th century difficulty is shown to be false.

Emotional Intelligence right away rang so true to me; yes, academic skills are important, but what really is most important for navigating the world?

In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan I loved because it challenged the standard paradigm of how to view women’s valuing of relationships; it is not a lower stage of development–perhaps it is something of importance that males have been missing!

Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years was magnificent. I love that subtitle: “the King years.” Say what you may about King’s limitations, he was catalyst and moral warrior beyond compare.

All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield I have gone back to a few times. It starts with Willie Bosket, violent black American criminal, and asks, where did this man come from? How is he connected to the history of this country? The answer is very deeply connected.

I’m going to think about this some more. Thanks for the suggestion. Of course I hope to get to more of the books on Kotlowitz’s list; I’ve read a few, but I’m sure they all are great!”  


Best Boston Resources for John Myers and Liza Weinstein.


This is just one of the many attractive views in store for my friend John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein, who move to Boston on Sunday.

This is just one of the many attractive views in store for my friend John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein, who move to Boston on Sunday.


Buddy John Myers and his wife Liza Weinstein are moving to Boston.

It’s one of a series of major changes in their lives.

On Friday she received her doctoral degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago.

On Saturday they finish packing up and celebrating with both sets of parents.

And on Sunday they drive to Boston, where Liza will soon start working for Northeastern University. 

She also will have their first child in a few short months. 

John and Liza are both Michiganders who have never lived in Boston, so I’m putting together this list of Boston resources for them. 

Debate and amendment are welcome.

I. Best Boston Dictionary: The Boston Dictionary, by John Powers.  While just a tad dated-the book has an image of Michael Dukakis reading an article about Swedish land management technique under the term “furma govna”-this illustrated work is a perfect introduction to the much imitated Boston accent. 

II. Best Book about Boston Busing: Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas.  One of my all-time favorite books, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of three families during the decade that started with Dr. King’s assassinations, with individual chapters about Boston’s then-Mayor Kevin White, Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship, activist and mayoral candidate Louise Day Hicks, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, and Judge W. Arthur Garrity

III. Best Boston Memoir: All Souls, A Family Story From Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald.  Friend MacDonald brings it in this coming of age story that has vivid scenes of a community’s member going to funeral after funeral for its murdered youth, all the while saying that drugs and violence are the exclusive province of black neighborhoods.  The busing chapter is particularly memorable. 

IV. Best Boston Sports Memoir:  Drive: The Story of My Life, by Larry Bird.  The self-proclaimed “Hick from French Lick” restored Celtics glory in the 80s after an embarrassing downturn in the late 70s, leading the team to three titles and helping, along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the league reach unprecedented heights.  This straightforward book, written toward the end of his glorious care, tells the story of his hardscrabble youth.

V. Best Local Historian: Anthony Sammarco.  This well known local historian has published a series of beautiful books, many about specific Boston neighborhoods, that combine well-written text with attractive pictures that effectively convey the feel of each area.  

VI. Best Bookstore/Record Cafe: Rhythm and Muse.  Got to give the love to dear friend and former roommate David Doyle, who’s been operating in Jamaica Plain for more than a decade now.

VII. Best Medical Thriller Set in Boston: Coma, by Robin Cook.  Ultimately turned into a film by a pre-Jurassic Park Michael Crichton, this chilling novel of death in a hospital may not be the best choice for John and Liza as I imagine her pregnancy will require her to take quite a few hospital trips.

VIII. Best Children’s Book Set in Boston: Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, and The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White.  It’s too hard to distinguish between these two classics, which are geared toward slightly different audiences.  Both are wonderful, though.

IX. Best Legal Book Set in the Boston Area:  A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr.  This book takes place in Woburn, which is just outside Boston, and the story of the fast-driving Jan Schlichtmann’s efforts to hold polluter W.R. Grace to account makes for gripping reading in Harr’s capable hands.

X. Category and book determined by readers:  I’m leaving this one open for suggestions.

St. Patrick’s Day, Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls: A Family Story From Southie

Michael Patrick MacDonald's extraordinary All Souls: A Family Story From Southie tells the story of his South Boston childhood.

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.