40 pages • 1 hour readMichael Patrick MacDonald
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All Souls: A Family Story From Southie is a 1999 memoir by Michael MacDonald. It examines his experiences growing up in the Old Colony neighborhood of South Boston, also known as Southie. The memoir examines themes of family, racism, xenophobia, police corruption, and justice, all set against the backdrop of one family’s tragedy.
When the book begins, an adult Michael is returning to Southie in order to give a tour of the neighborhood to a reporter. The reporter is writing an article about social conditions among lower-class, poor whites, which is the demographic in which Michael’s family found itself when he was a child. Michael is now working as an anti-violence activist who did not plan—and did not want—to return to Southie, and the Introduction makes it clear that the majority of the book will be spent explaining why.
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After the Introduction, the timeline backtracks. Michael is 7 years old. Michael’s mother, Helen Knight—known throughout as Ma—has just lost a baby son. Michael is the seventh child at that point. The early chapters serve to introduce the various members of the family, the neighbors, and to illustrate Southie itself as a character in the story. The Southie neighborhoods—focusing primarily on the Old Colony, Roxbury, and Charleston projects—are filled with violence, crime, and death. In different ways, and to varying degrees, several of Michael’s siblings are sucked into the criminal underworld.
Southie’s residents view their community as a rough-and-tumble but close-knit group that takes care of its own problems and doesn’t need the help of the police to resolve its issues. In fact, the anti-cop sentiment in Southie is so strong for most of the book that Michael cites a hatred of cops as one of the leading creators of new criminals among Southie youth.
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After several chapters detailing what it’s like for Michael to grow up in Southie among the political backdrop of a racially-motivated, anti-busing campaign, tragedy begins befalling the MacDonald family in earnest. Michael’s brother, Davey, is diagnosed with schizophrenia and takes his own life by jumping off a building after leaving a mental institution. One of his older brothers, Frankie, is a Golden-Gloves boxer and the pride of the neighborhood. His brother Kevin is a born grifter who delights in running scams and eventually begins working for the crew of Whitey Bulger, a notorious gangster who controls Southie’s crime enterprises. Within eight months of each other, Kevin and Frankie die: Kevin takes his own life, and Frankie is killed after a bank robbery, in which he had taken a job meant for Kevin.
Michael goes numb after the deaths of Kevin and Frankie, determined not to feel anything again. But he is unable to remain stoic when his 13-year-old brother, Stevie, is convicted—largely based on false evidence fabricated by the police—of a murder he did not commit. Rather than languish in hopelessness and nihilism, Michael decides that he will pursue a life of activism against violence. He will find a way to help ease the suffering of future Southie families in a way that he could never do with his own family. As the book ends, Michael is presiding over a vigil for the many dead youth of Southie, including his brothers. But he has seen a glimpse of hope and believes that he will be able to make his peace with the tragedies his family has endured.