THE BOY AT THE GATE (A Memoir)
Arcade Publishing, 2013
List Price: $24.95
Let me start with the conclusion -- Danny Ellis¹ new memoir, "The Boy At The Gate," is a wonderful book. It is a real story, and you need to keep reminding yourself of that as you read, because the characters are so deftly drawn, the prose so beautifully written and the plot so compelling that you can easily forget that this is a history, not a novel. The individual people are richly drawn, the plot is intricate without being overly complex, the emotions are real and it is a slice of a past era and it¹s all real. Ellis
helps keep it real by going back and forth between his ³present day² exploration of his past through his music, and the story he is telling.
Some may already know Danny Ellis as a musician. If you do, the book will be that much richer. But if you don¹t, by the time you get to the final page, you will know him better than you do many of your friends. He opens up his life, his recollections and his feelings throughout, not as the focus of the conversation but as a constant accompaniment, like the chords that support a melody.
The book begins in the present, as we meet the people who are important in his life today in Asheville, North Carolina. He¹s a songwriter as well as a performer, and as we meet him, he gets an idea for a song without immediately realizing what it is. He realizes he is writing about the time when he was a boy, a period he has been consciously and unconsciously burying. The force of the song coming out of him brings him back to remember those days, and he shares those memories with us.
Ellis was born in 1947 and his early memories are of growing up poor in the Dublin of the 1950¹s. His father leaves, his mother gives away the twins, and eventually he and his sisters are separated and he is sent to Artane, a notorious home for boys run by the Christian Brothers. He hangs onto the belief that his mother is coming back, but slowly he gets drawn into the life in the home. He discovers music, he finds he has a talent for it, and it proves to be his salvation, in more ways than one.
This is a personal and compelling story told by a musician, and like music, it is hard to adequately describe. Academic musicians describe the tonal qualities and construction of a composition, but the emotional quality of music, what the music is about, is learned by listening with more heart than intellect. This is a book filled with heart. It¹s not a sloppy or overly sentimental work, but, cynic that I am, my eyes were unaccustomedly damp at the very end of the book. And yes, it has a ³surprise² ending. It¹s not a sad book, nor is it a condemnation of the system or the Christian Brothers, although there is much sadness and many will disapprove of what happened to many of those boys.
It is perhaps a story of redemption and salvation. It is certainly a story of hope, and a grand testimony to the power of music and friendship. It gives us a deep and personal glimpse into a slice of Irish life that no longer exists, and it is above all a fun book to read. There are books that make you sad that they are ending; you don¹t want them to end. This is one of those books.
One final word of warning. By the time you finish this book, you will want to go right out and buy his album "800 Voices" that is the moving force in the development of this story. And you should. But of course, first you have to go out and buy the book. Do it. Buy yourself a present. I suspect you may be giving it as a present to others. It¹s wonderful experience, and I encourage you to take part in it. JS