All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I cannot recommend this memoir highly enough. MacDonald’s prose is straight-forward and engaging as he tells this story of growing up in the projects in Southie. I happened to pick it up just after watching The Departed and found the book a refreshing real-life look at the symbiosis of drug lords, politicians and policemen in South Boston. I never lived in Southie, but spent a lot of time there and in Roxbury in the mid-Seventies when I was considering moving there. MacDonald’s tales of project life ring true to me.

Since the story takes place in the Seventies and Eighties, it captures the progress of the drug trade, beginning with the—in retrospect—almost idyllic time when the kids idolized the local marijuana-peddler because of his wealth and his commitment to the neighborhood and carrying through the hard times: the crime and killings after cocaine and heroin took over. The book almost becomes a threnody as MacDonald memorializes not only his lost siblings but others from the neighborhood, with page after page of visits to the local funeral home to bury friends. I was lucky that when I was living in poverty, it was the Seventies, before the cocaine epidemic hit my town.

However, the book is for the most part upbeat. The individual members of this large, close-knit family are clearly drawn and their pranks and shenanigans lovingly recounted. Kids find a way to have fun, even living in the projects. One of the most remarkable things about the book is the way his voice migrates from that of a child, aware of the things a child would be aware of, to that of an adult. He is unapologetic about the love they had for their neighborhood, particularly the all-Irish project that was their territory.

Sometimes your territory—the place where everyone has your back—is all you have. Within the context so brilliantly evoked here, the protests against court-ordered busing in 1974 make sense. Racism had its part, for sure, but it was more that people who had little else wanted to hold onto the fabric of their lives. And there was the excitement. Who could be bored when there were marches and protests going on? One of the things I hadn’t realised was how many children dropped out of school with parental blessing rather than be bused to Roxbury, leaving them vulnerable to crime and drugs.

MacDonald presents both the good and the bad sides of Southie: the interconnectedness of a community where neighbors watched out for each other, the secrecy and refusal to admit that the gangsters who ran the place were not actually a source of protection. He was shocked to find out that the most powerful gangster of them all was collaborating with the feds. At the same time, though, MacDonald rejoiced to find, for example, people still giving quarters to a street person known as Bobby Got-a-Quarter without his even having to ask. For me as well, the best thing about my years in poverty was the strong support of my community of friends.

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