#110) Book review: “All Souls” by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I used to hate people like Michael MacDonald. Growing up, it always seemed as if I was intimidated or bullied by South Bostonians whenever I came into contact with them; they lived in a kill-or-be-killed world and despite my attempts to pass myself off as a bad-ass, every move I made screamed “sheltered kid from the ‘burbs.” Later, when I started playing music in bars, my genius went unappreciated by the drunken Southie masses. If you’d asked me when I moved to California in the summer of 1999 (which, unbeknownst to me then was when “All Souls” was published), I’d have said that I was as glad to leave the throngs of boorish, working class Bostonians behind as I was the cold Massachusetts winters. Time and distance changed my view toward Boston and Southie in particular. I learned to appreciate the opportunities I’d had that were denied to many, not the least of which was the chance to leave Boston when I’d had enough.

Michael MacDonald is the ninth of eleven children. On the first page of “All Souls” he says, “[W]e sometimes get confused about who’s dead and who’s alive in my family.” Indeed, the inside cover has a list of the names of MacDonald’s siblings, including the dates of their births and in four cases their deaths. The backbone of the family is Helen, better known as Ma, who leaves her abusive husband and raises the entire family on her own. Other characters include the often discussed but rarely seen gangster Whitey Bulger, charismatic but divisive politician “Dapper” O’Neill and South Boston itself, a place which one never truly leaves. “No matter how far I ran, Southie was always on my mind,” MacDonald says of the neighborhood which is by turns “the greatest place to grow up” and where he often found himself “sitting at the window, noticing…kids gathering…for the three-block journey up Dorchester Street to the funeral parlor.”

Attitudes that seem contradictory at first run through South Boston and “All Souls” but as we get to know MacDonald’s family, friends and enemies, the motivations become clearer. Those who wonder why poor whites often vote Republican can find answers in MacDonald’s Southie. Like Appalachia, Southie is largely populated by socially conservative and religious residents. Poverty has led to alcohol, drugs and crime. There is a strong distrust of outsiders and liberals are seen as meddlers who want to control, not help. “Liberals…never seemed to be able to fit urban poor whites into their world view, which tended to see blacks as the persistent dependent,” MacDonald notes. “After our violent response to court-ordered busing in the 1970s, Southie was labeled as the white racist oppressor….that label worked to take the blame away from those able to leave the city and drive back to all-white suburban towns at the end of the day.” MacDonald’s family “hated Ted Kennedy; he’d sided with the busing too and was seen as the biggest traitor of all.” Yet even as the Southie teenagers fought with the black students bused in from neighborhoods such as Roxbury, they found common ground in music such as “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers. “[N]o one called it black music…we couldn’t see what color anyone was from the radio…what mattered was that the Isley Brothers were singing about everything we were watching…” Besides, “Rock’n’roll was for rich suburban people with long hair and dirty clothes.”

In the end, a mix of ideologies saved what was left of the MacDonald family. Long dependent on welfare and public housing, the MacDonalds left South Boston when they realized that no politicians from either party had any serious interest in improving their neighborhood or fighting the influence of Whitey Bulger’s boys. Ma moved to Colorado with the youngest kids; MacDonald’s older siblings moved to different parts of New England.

For Michael, redemption didn’t come from “getting out” of Southie; it came from going back to Southie and reaching out of Southie. When crime victims in other impoverished Boston neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Charlestown and “Eastie” started speaking up both to outsiders and amongst themselves, it inspired MacDonald to get Southie residents to break their “code of silence.” “All Souls” starts and ends at a vigil for the victims on November 2, 1996 – All Souls day.

One could argue that the message of “All Souls” boils down to “Can’t we all just get along?” If so, the messenger is one who has seen the consequences of not getting along. The legacy of Michael MacDonald’s Southie upbringing is a man who is tough enough to not fight back and one who is strong enough to ask for help for himself and his community.

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