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Book review: The myth of South Boston exposed

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Kevin Cullen

ALL SOULS: A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108-2892; www.beacon.org. 263 pp. $24.

There is more than a passing resemblance between Michael Patrick MacDonald’s "All Souls" and Frank McCourt’s "Angela’s Ashes," although MacDonald’s prose is not as polished and as profound as McCourt’s: feckless father or, in MacDonald’s case, fathers, long-suffering but loving mother who has lots of babies even though they only makes the family’s lot worse, and a narrator who somehow stumbles out of the morass.

If not for the success of "Angela’s Ashes," it is doubtful that a book like "All Souls" would have been published in the first place. McCourt proved that writing about the crushing weight of poverty could be compelling stuff.

MacDonald’s memoir about growing up poor in the projects in South Boston, the Irish-American capital of the capital of Irish-America, is at least as disturbing as "Angela’s Ashes," if not as literary.

Like McCourt, MacDonald lost siblings, including an infant. But while McCourt’s dead brothers and sisters were taken in infancy, four of MacDonald’s siblings died between the ages of 19 and 25, the victims of drugs and violence. The streets of South Boston, MacDonald’s hometown, were less infectious than the slums of New York and the lanes of Limerick. But if Southie’s disease is less obvious, it is no less insidious.

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The local criticism that has been leveled at MacDonald’s book echoes that which came from Limerick after "Angela’s Ashes" was published to critical acclaim. And it’s not from just the usual suspects in Southie who see treason in any attempt to criticize "the town," as Southie natives call it.

Peter Gelzinis, the Boston Herald columnist and Southie native who throughout his career has bravely pointed to warts in his hometown, savaged "All Souls" in a review for Boston Magazine, saying it painted a disproportionately dismal view of Southie. Gelzinis’s point was that most kids who grew up in Southie, even in its housing projects, did not turn out like MacDonald’s family. Gelzinis said MacDonald was copping out by not pointing to the obvious — that his family was screwed up because his mother, Helen Murphy-MacDonald-King, had been irresponsible in having 11 kids by various husbands and boyfriends.

That criticism misses the central point of "All Souls." The book exposes as a myth that South Boston was an urban oasis, that its kids were not as bad off as black kids just a few miles away in Roxbury. It is not an indictment of most people in South Boston, but of the hypocrisy of those who bought the myth. By leaving the judgment of his mother to the reader, meanwhile, MacDonald is showing as much respect for his reader as his mother.

Many people in South Boston still believe that the fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger kept drugs out of the town, that his iron hand kept gunplay to a minimum. Southie’s problems — from the desegregation of schools to drugs to skyrocketing real estate prices — were always blamed on outsiders. But as MacDonald’s book shows, many of the problems were homegrown. As for Bulger keeping the drugs out, the evidence is fairly overwhelming that if you paid him off, you could do whatever you wanted in Southie.

This is an Irish story, and so it wouldn’t be complete without some irony. Whitey Bulger styled himself a strong supporter of the IRA. He even helped organize the 1984 gunrunning mission that landed the leading Sinn Fein figure Martin Ferris in jail. But Whitey Bulger was allowed to avoid federal prosecution for more than 20 years because he was an informant for the FBI. His friends say Bulger would never have given anything up on the Provos, and that may be true. But the Provos don’t look kindly on anyone they deal with touting to anyone in authority. If his friends in the IRA ever find him, they would be duty bound to interrogate him, then shoot him.

In Southie, they still hate touts. But it seems more people are angry at MacDonald for telling the truth than they are about Whitey Bulger living a lie.

(The writer is European correspondent for the Boston Globe.)

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