A breakaway bestseller since its first printing, All Souls takes us deep into Michael Patrick MacDonald’s Southie, the proudly insular neighborhood with the highest concentration of white poverty in America. The anti-busing riots of 1974 forever changed Southie, Boston’s working class Irish community, branding it as a violent, racist enclave. Michael Patrick MacDonald grew up in Southie’s Old Colony housing project. He describes the way this world within a world felt to the troubled yet keenly gifted observer he was even as a child: “[as if] we were protected, as if the whole neighborhood was watching our backs for threats, watching for all the enemies we could never really define.”
But the threats-poverty, drugs, a shadowy gangster world-were real. MacDonald lost four of his siblings to violence and poverty. All Souls is heart-breaking testimony to lives lost too early, and the story of how a place so filled with pain could still be “the best place in the world.”
We meet Ma, Michael’s mini-skirted, accordian-playing, usually single mother who cares for her children there are eventually eleven through a combination of high spirits and inspired “getting over.” And there are Michael’s older siblings Davey, sweet artist-dreamer; Kevin, child genius of scam; and Frankie, Golden Gloves boxer and neighborhood hero whose lives are high-wire acts played out in a world of poverty and pride.
But too soon Southie becomes a place controlled by resident gangster Whitey Bulger, later revealed to be an FBI informant even as he ran the drug culture that Southie supposedly never had. It was a world primed for the escalation of class violence-and then, with deadly and sickening inevitability, of racial violence that swirled around forced busing. MacDonald, eight years old when the riots hit, gives an explosive account of the asphalt warfare. He tells of feeling “part of it all, part of something bigger than I’d ever imagined, part of something that was on the national news every night.”
Within a few years-a sequence laid out in All Souls with mesmerizing urgency-the neighborhood’s collapse is echoed by the MacDonald family’s tragedies. All but destroyed by grief and by the Southie code that
doesn’t allow him to feel it, MacDonald gets out. His work as a peace activist, first in the all-Black neighborhoods of nearby Roxbury, then back to the Southie he can’t help but love, is the powerfully redemptive close to a story that will leave readers utterly shaken and changed.