Hungry Hill: A Memoir
By Carole OMalley Gaunt
University of Massachusetts, 284 pp. illustrated, paperback, $19.95
The Irish or Irish-American coming-of-age story has a grand tradition, going back to James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and brilliantly updated by Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha " and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." The genre remains teeming with life, as shown recently by Michael Patrick MacDonald's "All Souls," a tragic memoir of his Irish-American upbringing in South Boston.
In playwright Carole O'Malley Gaunt's absorbing new memoir, "Hungry Hill," we find the classic ingredients of this kind of tale. The book's title comes from the predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in Springfield where the author's family lived. In Gaunt's narrative, there are the mixed blessings of Catholicism -- the parochial-school nuns who teach crucial life lessons but also demand unquestioning obedience to the church. There is also alcoholism, in the case of Gaunt's father, and the shame, secrecy, and tragedy it brings to the family. There are the first stirrings of romantic yearning, the battle between Gaunt's youthful hormones and societal restrictions. Most of all, there's agonizing loss: Both of Gaunt's parents died before she graduated from Springfield's Cathedral High School .
Gaunt opens her memoir with the death of her mother from cancer. It's 1959 , and the author is 13 , the only girl in a house with seven boisterous brothers and a father who increasingly turns to whiskey. Although Gaunt is a remarkably responsible teenager, she is powerless against the emotional chaos her mother's death brings. Looking at her bereft father, Gaunt writes: "I feel as if I need to break into a tap dance to jar him back from wherever his sadness for my mother has led him." She takes on the unenviable role of family referee, breaking up sibling battles, one of which is triggered by brother Joey's love of the New York Yankees.
Gaunt studies hard at Cathedral High School and is even elected to class office. But she's unhappy with her lot (what's the use of a happy childhood for a memoir?). She presents a litany of sins committed by her father, including not attending her performance in a high school play, not reading the articles she's written for the school newspaper, and asking too many questions about her dates. Worst of all, her father starts dating and soon marries a woman whom Gaunt ends up loathing.
Her biggest issue with her father is his drinking problem. She writes beautifully about the anxiety of waiting for him to arrive home during a snowstorm: "I watch the flakes falling steadily, rhythmically against the globe of the streetlight and glance again at the wall clock: 10:55." Her father makes it home safely, but there's whiskey on his breath. After she's dumped all his whiskey down the drain, he screams at her and she screams back that he's an alcoholic, slowly killing himself. Yet nothing changes, and Gaunt remains angry: "When he says how much he loves us kids, it's just the booze talking. He's made his choice. He will drink himself to death." Alas, Gaunt is right; her father dies not long after.
"Hungry Hill" covers the years 1959 to 1963, when Gaunt graduated from high school. Her memoir viscerally connects readers with the hopes and losses she lived with then. It ends with her senior prom and her preparations for college. What readers will take away from it, besides Gaunt's skillful wielding of language and narrative structure, is a sense of this Irish-Catholic teenager as a survivor who pushes back against the terrible tide of loss to seek her footing in the wider world.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Quincy.