For most of his life, Frank McCourt was a teacher. But it is as the author of the wildly successful memoir Angela's Ashes, which recounted his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, that he will be remembered.
McCourt, who died of meningitis July 19 at 78, was the first of seven children their mother Angela cared for indomitably. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, which became so poor that three siblings died of disease or malnutrition. "In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote," said McCourt's brother Malachy. Frank once said that as a child he dreamed of being a prison inmate for the food and warmth.
After serving in the U.S. Army, he earned a degree with the help of the GI Bill and spent most of the next 30 years teaching English and creative writing in New York City schools. Though his talent for storytelling kept him alive in the classroom, for many years he tried and failed to write about his childhood. Finally, while babysitting his granddaughter, he had the idea of writing like a child: detached, simple, in the present tense. "Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world," he said. "They tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book."
The result was Angela's Ashes, which appeared in 1996. The book told the story of his early years in a voice purged of anger and bitterness and self-pity. In an extraordinary act of forgiveness, he wrote about his father with humor and even compassion. It became first a critical sensation, then a runaway best seller. In 1997 it won the Pulitzer Prize. "I wrote a book about growing up miserable, and the next thing I know I'm here," he said. "It's absurd, isn't it?"