Hungry Hill, Carole O'Malley's memoir of growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, takes its name from her old neighborhood, which either took its name from all the Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine, or from the Irish cops who wanted to make a statement about the lack of restaurants on their beat.
Although neither theory can be proven, the first seems like a testament to Irish suffering and hardship, while the other seems like a testament to Irish humor. Both of these theories are sifted finely together in O'Malley's remembrances of the four years of her life after her mother's painful death from lymphatic cancer in 1959.
Carole's father, a charming alcoholic as careless looking after his kids as he is careful looking after the bottle, places squarely on her shoulders the emotional burden of caring for herself, her father, and her seven brothers.
"You're the tough one," he tells 13-year-old Carole, and then leaves to go have a drink, leaving Carole alone with her dying mother to wait for the neighborhood parish priest to stop by and give Mrs. O'Malley her last rites.
She spends the next four years being the classic child of an alcoholic, carrying the burden of the house and refereeing fights between all the brothers, who seem to have thoroughly absorbed the misogyny of their times at a very early age, taking it completely for granted that she will pack all their suitcases for family vacations and buy all their clothes, then criticizing her for not doing it correctly. All her high achievements - because Carole is, of course, an overachiever - are belittled by the entire family.
When Carole looks to her father for approval when she makes the honor roll, he shrugs and tells her she'll just end up a housewife, and when she is elected Class Treasurer and her brother elected Class President, he is praised and compared to the Kennedys while she is completely ignored. When she protests, she is told Class Treasurer is useless. As a girl in her Catholic high school, she is not allowed to run for either President or Vice President.
And when Carole begins to express her concern that their father is in the last stages of alcoholism and is seriously endangering his life, her brothers berate her for her overly-emotional stupidity right up to the time their father falls into a coma.
When his father marries Mary (an event Carole finds out about from her family doctor, who has been drafted into giving the news by Carole's father), things go from bad to worse.
The family doctor shames Carole, now fifteen, by telling her he drove past her house and saw three-year-old Tommy sleeping in the driveway, that her father must get married because Carole cannot handle things by herself. Carole is wracked with guilt and failure, and at no point does anyone ever think that her burden is grossly unfair. In fact, it's treated as a given that a female child become the wife and mother substitute. It does not even seem to occur to Mary, when she appears on the scene, that this never should have been Carole's lot in life. Instead, she sees her as competition that must be smacked down (often literally) at any cost.
The result of all this is a detached sort of loneliness inherent in the book. Carole is the loneliest child in the world, surrounded by people clamoring for her attention. She clings to as many small memories as she can to surround herself with normalcy, such as the friend who convinced her older brother to teach her how to disconnect the odometer on the family car so their father wouldn't guess she was putting hundreds of miles on it every Friday night.
Both the sorrow and the joy are written with a matter-of-factness that removes the writer so far from the events that the portrait of this disfunctional middle-class American family seems like it is being viewed from very far away, as if it is a tale about someone else's life that she is telling not because she wants to, but because she was asked to.
This, more than anything else, shows the lifetime consequences being the child of an alcoholic can bring.
by Carole O'Malley Gaunt
June 2007 by University of Massachusetts Press
Paperback, 284 pp
Thursday, June 19, 2008