Synopses & Reviews
Michael Patrick MacDonald grew up in "the best place in the world" the Old Colony projects of South Boston where 85 percent of the residents collect welfare in an area with the highest concentration of impoverished whites in the U.S. In All Souls, MacDonald takes us deep into the secret heart of Southie. With radiant insight, he opens up a contradictory world, where residents are besieged by gangs and crime but refuse to admit any problems, remaining fiercely loyal to their community. MacDonald also introduces us to the unforgettable people who inhabit this proud neighborhood. We meet his mother, Ma MacDonald, an accordion-playing, spiked-heel-wearing, indomitable mother to all; Whitey Bulger, the lord of Southie, gangster and father figure, protector and punisher; and Michael's beloved siblings, nearly half of whom were lost forever to drugs, murder, or suicide. By turns explosive and touching, All Souls ultimately shares a powerful message of hope, renewal, and redemption.
"In this plainly written, powerful memoir, MacDonald....paints a frightening portrait of a community under intense economic and social stress, issuing a forceful plea for understanding and justice." Publishers Weekly
"His anecdotes have the searing power of a redeemed sinner's fiery sermon. His swift, conversational style sweeps you into his anger and sorrow. He is a born rabble-rouser whose emotional power numbs the reader's reason." Charles Carberry, USA Today
In this searing, coming-of-age memoir, told through the eyes of the troubled yet keenly gifted observer he was even as a child, MacDonald describes growing up poor, Irish, and proud in the South Boston projects. 11 illustrations.
Reading Group Guide
1. A dramatic, telling scene "in which decades of silence are broken" opens All Souls. How does the scene echo throughout the memoir? How does that which motivates Southie residents to speak of tragic loss on All Souls' Night compare to the anguish that compelled Michael Patrick MacDonald to tell his story?
2. Describe the tone in which All Souls opens. How does it shift throughout the memoir? The chronicling of what sorts of events necessitates a change in tone? Is there consistency or dissonance between the way MacDonald writes about the drama around him and his interior world?
3. In his opening chapter MacDonald speaks of the seductiveness and threat of Southie myths. Describe those myths. In what ways is All Souls an act of demythologizing, and to what extent does it romanticize Southie?
4. "For my family," writes MacDonald, "freedom had become the rule above all others." Discuss the sort of freedom he has in mind. What are the most considerable threats to it? How do abstractions such as poverty and prejudice manifest themselves as real obstacles to the freedom desired?
5. Motherhood receives significant attention throughout All Souls, both in the author's all-important relationship to "Ma" and in the triumphs and trials of mothers throughout the Old Colony Project. What distinguishes Ma? How is she at once recognizable and unique? What do we learn about the challenges facing, and the resources available to a single mother in poverty?
6. Fathers for the most part are absent from Old Colony. What are the repercussions of this absence? Who or what attempts to fill the gap? To what sort of masculinity do the young men of the neighborhood aspire without father figures? How do Whitey Bulger and his ilk exploit and perpetuate this absence?
7. MacDonald has said that the "old neighborhood is dead in America." Does its portrait in All Souls strike you as anachronistic or anomalous, reverential or conflicted? Explain. What are the strengths and problems of an intimate, if often insular and isolated, neighborhood? What has contributed to the decline of the tight-knit community in the United States?
8. In commenting on the future of South Boston, MacDonald has said that forced integration and gentrification have ruined the possibility for the emergence of a functionally diverse neighborhood. He foresees something akin to "apartheid, where everybody in the projects is of color and everybody out of the projects is white, middle-class, single, and has no children." In All Souls what foreshadows this future? How is Southie's evolution like and unlike that of many metropolitan neighborhoods?
9. How does All Souls complicate or illuminate the issue of racism in America today? What contributed to the intolerance exhibited by many in Southie during busing, and how did it differ in kind and degree from racism elsewhere? What is the author's attitude toward race and racists?
10. Catholicism provides a framework for much of the action in All Souls. Provide examples of the various ways by which MacDonald uses religion to tell his many stories. To what extent does Catholicism shape the author and his approach to narrative? For example, what do we make of his use of confession, souls, and ceremony?
11. Comment on the role of humor in All Souls. How would you characterize it? In what ways does it function as a two-edged sword? Does the idea of dark humor transcend Irishness to resonate in other cultures?
12. All Souls provides an examination of white urban poverty today. Have you considered the subject before picking up the book? Why does the issue seem largely ignored by the media? How does social class shape the lives chronicled in the book? How is it a red herring?
13. Explain the moral complexities of the busing incident. What factors contributed to its violent unfolding? Did MacDonald's recounting of the riots challenge your views of the participants in those riots?
14. MacDonald has said that the arrest of his younger brother Stevie marked a turning point in his life, a move from observation and contemplation to action and confrontation. Chart the evolution of the author's character and views throughout the memoir. Which moments revealed their significance to him immediately? Which only in retrospection?
15. Southie is as complex a character in All Souls as any of the MacDonalds. Examine the author's changing and at times conflicting relationship to the place? Point to these pivotal moments. What does Southie mean to MacDonald at the close of the memoir?