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Book Review: All Souls: A Family Story from Southie
05 Jun 2002
All Souls: A Family Story from Southie Michael Patrick MacDonald Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. 266pp. $11.20 (or free w/ inter-library loan)

As with so many books, it would be a mistake to judge “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie”, by its front cover. Below the title is a portrait much like the idyllic families in 1950’s sitcoms such as “Leave It to Beaver” and the “Andy Griffith Show”. Yet on the back Geoffrey Canada writes, “His story of growing up poor and white in South Boston reminds me of my own, growing up poor and black in the South Bronx.” In his first book Michael MacDonald provides a deeply personal narrative of his years in a community the American mass media has rarely shown concern for, let alone shown.

One of Helen MacDonald’s 8 children, Michael was born March 1966 into a family that survived on what little public aid, and his moms earnings as a musician provided. His name comes from a baby brother who died in his crib from pneumonia. Childrens Hospital in Boston had turned the infant away saying they had filled their quota of "charity cases."

While the story starts out in the Colombia Housing Projects where his brother died and many others were born, most of it is centered around Old Colony. In a chapter called "Ghetto Heaven" the author provides a vivid picture of the move into what Helen said was "just like Belfast", their new home:

"They all stopped whatever they were doing to watch us coming down the street. My mother just kept smiling and waving...She pointed to all the shamrock graffiti and IRA and IRISH POWER spray painted everywhere... I'd seen tough-looking people before. But these were white, like us. There were a couple of young people in wheelchairs, people with deformities and one teenager with recent stab wounds in his stomach...All the boys had tattoos, done with a sewing needle. "

After the initial cold response at Old Colony Project, the MacDonalds are accepted as insiders. Michael meets Danny, a neighbor kid that takes him on a tour of the Lower End, carefully avoiding stepping in others territory. To the West was D Street Projects that Danny referred to as home to "white niggers". To the East was City Point that referred to the two boys with the same term. Then there were the few African Americans at Old Colony that were called "blacks" by the neighbors. As the author states, "It felt good to all of us to not be as bad as the hopeless people in D Street...But now I was jealous of the kids in Old Harbor Project... where some of the kids had fathers. "

About the same time Danny was drawing a circle border around Old Colony, Judge Garrity ruled in a case brought forth by the NAACP that the Boston School Committee was guilty of willful segregation. Soon after the Board of Education's "Masters" developed Phase 1 of their integration plan involving two of the poorest districts in Boston: Roxbury and Southie. Weekly protests culminated in the infamous Boston busing riots of '74.

As many liberal news networks saw the events through their singular race lens, Michael's family saw a lot more that would be unfit for a corporate sound bite. While racist rhetoric eventually became the loudest voice in the anti-busing coalition, there were many that objected to "rich liberals and their forced busing," that would turn the schools into "prisons" with a massive police occupation. Helen changes her Irish rebel songs to fit the time. The Queen of England was replaced with Judge Garrity. The Tactical Police Force, that occupied Southie replaced the “Black and Tans”- the Crown's military that raided Ireland. Others wondered about the intentions of the political elite that wanted to integrate Southie but not their own all white suburbs.

Unfortunately MacDonald never writes about the different opinions on busing that existed in all black Roxbury. What little we get comes from within his ghetto. When Helen calls the city to find out what school her daughter has been assigned to she reached a Roxbury mother who also wanted her daughter to attend the neighborhood school across the street, rather than be bused across town.

Not long after the ethnic violence had died down at South Boston High School, MacDonald turns his attention closer to home. One morning he finds three fingers in a pool of rainwater outside his family apartment. He recalls hearing screams in the night but didn't take much notice. In the late 70’s and early 80’s the sounds of gunshots and screaming had become an almost daily occurrence in Old Colony. In another chapter the author recalls the time when his older sister Kathy went missing for months. Through his sisters friends a worried mother found her daughter in a New Hampshire crack house. When the father of Kathy’s unborn child points a gun at Helen telling her to leave, Helen beats him with it and carries Kathy to the car and back home.

Even though MacDonald comes to think of Southie as a “death zone”, many others thought of it as the best place in the world. After all, “crime”, “violence”, “poverty”, were all words associated with a black face and Michael's world was an Irish enclave. The deaths of those that died too young were justified. Even when there were witnesses to a killing neighbors kept quiet out of a shared fear of retaliation.

Like the chapter on forced busing, “All Souls” is for the most part a book that points out real problems. Yet at the same time it is short on possible solutions, even when inspiring victories can be found in Southie. Prior to the governments integration plan, South Boston's Bancroft Elementary School had quietly and voluntarily integrated.

While the story of poverty in the land of plenty has been told countless times, "All Souls" is well worth reading. It’s unique because it gives a non-stereotypical view from an insider rather than an ivory tower academic looking in, interpreting with liberal or conservative theories.

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