A few years ago, my good friend and fellow teacher, Bill O'Brien, called in sick to school on a Monday morning. When I talked to him later that day, he told me that he had been up all night reading a book called All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. The book had so profoundly affected Bill that he actually needed a day to process what he had read. Later in the year, Bill fought to have the book added to the senior summer reading list as the social studies requirement.
As an English teacher, I knew I needed to immediately read any book that had had such a strong impact on my respected colleague, so I rushed out to get it. Like Bill, I read the book in almost one sitting, and I instantly saw why the memoir evoked such a passionate response. I knew it was a book that my urban school students would relate to on many levels.
Michael Patrick MacDonald was one of nine children born to his mother, Helen MacDonald, a colorful and strong character in her own right. And it is family that is at the core of this novel. Since all students have families, it is a concept with which students easily connect. Michael shares the triumphs and tragedies that make up his childhood growing up in the projects of South Boston. He takes his readers deep into the heart of Southie, an area well-known for its crime, poverty, and frequently racist and insular attitudes. Teens are able to experience firsthand the school busing riots, the reign of mobster Whitey Bulger over the residents of Southie, as well as the fierce loyalty and dedication that Southie residents and families have for one another, which often results in a damaging "code of silence." Michael examines the many destructive forces that work to hurt his family and the Southie community in general. His memoir is a tale of triumph over adversity and strength and courage in bleakest of times.
When I look for books for my urban high school students, I often focus on the theme of resiliency in my search. Resilience is an important component in the lives of today's urban teenagers, many of whom deal with the same issues that Michael and his family did in Southie — social problems such as drug- and alcohol-addicted or absentee parents, poverty, violence, prejudice, and racism. For students to succeed, it is necessary for them to recognize that no obstacle is too large to overcome and that their resiliency will carry them through any difficult situation. All Souls epitomizes this theme. My students often remark that they felt like a kindred spirit to Michael MacDonald and that he inspired them to continue to persevere.
All Souls also teaches readers a great deal about the writing process: Michael Patrick MacDonald's characters are richly drawn, and his tale is told with honesty and insight. It is this honesty that appeals to young readers, who can spot a phony from a mile away. All Souls is also a story of social criticism — one that points out the many ways in which law enforcement and newspapers and other media exploit the lower classes. The lessons in All Souls can deeply enrich any classroom.
My students were lucky enough to meet Michael Patrick MacDonald; funding from DonorChoose.org brought him to our school as a guest speaker. (I would encourage teachers to bring authors into their classrooms in this way because it is a powerful experience for students.) These teens were shaken by their reading of All Souls, and they could not believe that they would be meeting the narrator of the story in person. It was wonderful for the students to see that — despite the tragedy and adversity that he faced — Michael Patrick MacDonald was able to come out the other side, not only as a writer, but as a community activist, a teacher of college writing, and a strong, successful member of society. All Souls is a book that shares the difficult and tragic times, but it also encompasses themes of hope, renewal, and redemption.
All Souls is suitable reading for both the English and social studies classroom. Many students remarked that it was the first book they read "entirely on their own," and students often read far ahead of the assigned pages. Further, Beacon Press offers a teacher's guide to All Souls, which has pre-reading assignments, discussion questions, and critical thinking activities.
There are few books that can capture teenagers' attention and can provoke the thoughtful discussion and reflection that All Souls does. For this reason, it is one of my highly recommended books for high school students.