Sometimes a book is published that should be required reading.
All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Michael Patrick MacDonald's best-selling childhood memoir, recently released in paperback, is one such book. All Souls elicits an important and eloquent message, saying more about the reality of poverty, racism, the class system, family and human behavior than even the most scholarly sociology treatise could.
MacDonald does not preach, but simply tells his own story. He grew up in the projects in south Boston, also known as Southie, in the '70s. Raised by his mother, a beautiful and resourceful woman, MacDonald lived with many siblings, sired by an array of absentee fathers.
MacDonald's sibling family tree, preceding the text in the book, shows almost as many casualties as survivors, lending the book an air of melancholy and inevitability even before it begins. Yet the story is filled with love and humor.
An earnest, warm man with a Boston brogue, MacDonald discussed his book with the Independent during a recent visit to Denver. He admitted he didn't necessarily know what he had to say until he began to write the book.
"A lot of the complexities and mixed feelings I've had throughout my life about where I come from and who I am, I guess, come out in the book," he said. "[For example] loyalty is beautiful and evil. My goal was just to tell the truth and to tell my story. I would never be so presumptuous as to [say I have] the solutions."
It is quite a story. MacDonald grew up poor. "The kids," as he calls his siblings, sustained beatings and robberies, each developing verbal and physical survival skills. Among other things, MacDonald would hide appliances during the social workers' inspections, so as to avoid the family's welfare being cut off. Though most people they knew used food stamps, the MacDonald family developed elaborate ruses to appear to be better than those who would openly ridicule them. Some of the more entertaining stories in the book are of MacDonald's siblings' big-hearted cons.
In 1973, the family moved to Old Colony, a tough, under-class, mostly Irish neighborhood. MacDonald describes the turf wars and the phenomenon that led people to be loyal to a place they otherwise hated, clinging to the belief that they were part of something better than what others had.
Subtly, the book begins to take on a more sinister undercurrent as its narrator, growing older, develops awareness, and as the neighborhood problems become less benign and more deadly. MacDonald expresses a hushed, distant respect, shared by the community, for gangster Whitey Bulger. At first a benevolent dictator, Bulger eventually emerges as the Hydra-head of a hugely complex social evil. Guns and drugs become more the rule than the exception. The neighborhood practices a conspiracy of silence which leaves it entirely vulnerable, a sick result of the conflict between the values of loyalty and survival.
In 1974, the social experiment known as busing was foisted upon the neighborhood, causing a violent reaction. The formerly apolitical residents rallied together against the invasion of a place that was the only thing they had to call their own. As a result, Southie residents were branded consummate racists, an infamous reputation still with them today. The complexities of busing are almost unfathomable, but MacDonald's story goes a long way toward airing the truth about it.
"Busing in retrospect was class manipulation by both the Left and the Right," said MacDonald. "[It is] people up there making decisions about what happens to people down here, not involving them at all in the conversation, not being at all in touch with the reality of people's lives in these communities. I also discovered by writing my book that the Left and the Right work very well together to cause and create problems in communities like mine. Busing is the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger."
MacDonald has long struggled with understanding the falsity of the conventional wisdom regarding race and class, so different from that to which he was an eyewitness. The book only tells about his childhood, but in our interview, he described his years as an anti-violence advocate, after he escaped Southie:
"In the period when I left Southie, I hated [Southie] and became one of those bigots who talked about 'those people' in a bigoted way and hung out in progressive circles as an activist, going along with that kind of bigotry. I kind of knew that busing didn't work but I kept quiet about it, because you're automatically branded as a racist if you don't like busing. And then I said, "Fuck it, these people are worse bigots than anyone in my neighborhood."
"The more I worked in communities of color, [the more I] realized they had the same opinion I had. My experiences in my life developed a lot of my social and political perspectives which I now value. I was scared to announce it before."
In All Souls, MacDonald neither damns nor promotes nor explains; he just shows, humanizing a group that has never had a voice before, yet reveals itself as nothing less than a social-class litmus test. The eight-year-old MacDonald found himself in the middle of race riots, defending his neighborhood from invasion, with no clue as to the political implications of his actions. It was part loyalty and part diversion. His story makes it clear that, under the circumstances, any average person might have acted the same way.
"The racism is real," MacDonald explained, "but the part of the story [everyone] missed was how easy it is for people in a neighborhood like this, who feel under siege, to jump into the arms of politicians and gangsters and to be manipulated by them. The racism is very real and is not to be excused no matter how poor someone is, but there's this other side of the story that has to be told that should be a red flag to those of us who want to bring change into the world -- sometimes we propel people further to the Right."
MacDonald hesitates. "I don't like to be public about where I stand politically because I want [people] to read the book and draw their own conclusions."
What makes this distressing story eminently readable is that MacDonald immortalizes an unforgettable array of characters, some funny, all unique. His family emerges as a charming and scary lot. (MacDonald's mother, a tragic and heroic figure, now lives near Denver with several of the author's half-siblings.)
MacDonald emerged from his difficult upbringing as a gifted observer and writer, though it could have been otherwise. "Writing the book and encouraging people to tell the truth," he said, "is the opposite of suppression and addiction and alcoholism and suicide, all of which I could easily be -- a junkie. I'd love to be [a junkie]. It's very appealing, to escape into euphoria and not feel pain; it's a painkiller."
MacDonald recently relocated to Los Angeles. "I see the complete demise of all of Boston's [genuine] neighborhoods through gentrification. Working-class enclaves have disappeared. It's really painful to see that happening to my city," he explained. "It's happening to the whole country but [that's] not as painful [to me].
"Also, because of the success of the book -- it's been over a year on the bestseller list in Boston -- I can't go out of the house [in Boston] without bumping into people who have read the book who come up to me talking about the book, and I can't talk about the book all the time."
Never mind; All Souls is a book that speaks for itself.