The Big Yank

Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish

Non-Fiction - Memoir
466 Pages
Reviewed on 12/04/2016
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Julie Hodgson for Readers' Favorite

J.P. Sexton's The Big Yank is a memoir about a family after immigrating from New York to Donegal in Ireland. The family life of John and his little brother, who doesn't get the beatings that John gets, is almost harrowing, to say the least, trying to make ends meet by earning the odd shilling, getting his head bashed, arse beaten, and a plethora of curse words thrown at him by his angry father, at any chance he could get. His mother was no better. John was always cunning, though, in using extra layers of clothing if he felt a beating was imminent! Getting into mischief and terrorising a neighbourhood was child's play for him and his brother Jimmy, even though it meant a good beating afterward. Being a Viking was a fun game! John's backside paid for it in the end, though!

When they had first arrived, tea and biscuits were served for his family, much to the delight of John and Jimmy, who stuffed them into their pockets at every opportunity. Not any of your rubbish tea either! The good stuff with real china tea cups as well. A welcome treat for these impoverished boys. Smuggling food over the Irish border so his father could get goods at half the price for his business maybe seemed like an adventure! But it was deadly serious to his father. Yes, the boys could possibly get some chips bought for them, even a cinema was a guise for their journey across the border, should any border guard ask any questions. Just as long as they made it back without any of the foodstuffs being confiscated! A miracle indeed that they were never caught.

J.P. Sexton's memoir, The Big Yank, takes readers by the hand through a journey of laughter, mixed with shock and exasperation at how he was treated at the hands of his parents while growing up in County Donegal, Ireland. It is unbelievable that the social services did not see what was going on and that he and his siblings didn't end up in a care home. J.P. Sexton tells his story brilliantly. An unleashing of emotion so fierce you cry and almost flinch when he gets his beating from his very angry father! How on earth he got through his childhood is beyond me. Being a huge fan of McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Tis, etc. this was a must-read for me. J.P. Sexton surpasses McCourt's storytelling with ease and brilliance. His innocence was stripped away bit by bit throughout the book. If there is one book you have to read, then it's this one... Superb and heart-wrenching writing.

Mamta Madhavan

The Big Yank: Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish by J.P. Sexton revolves around the author’s life in Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies. The book exposes a boy’s life of growing up in Ireland in a dysfunctional Irish American family, where he has to work to provide for his parents and siblings and behave more like a man than a child during his childhood. He tells readers how he became a smuggler at the age of nine and tried to survive in a world of harshness and brutality. The book reaches out to readers and touches them with its honesty, humor, humility, and melancholy.

The memoir is fast paced and readers are exposed to the harsh living conditions in County Donegal, Ireland. The characters introduced and the situations faced by the author are both interesting and strange, making it an engaging read and a memorable memoir. The author’s collection of memories thoughts, incidents, and experiences of his life are tangible, and they keep readers entertained till the very end.

The author’s willpower, perseverance, and determination to survive, and his way of lacing his memoir with wit and humor, show his strong character and his determination to overcome difficulties. It’s a wonderful read that will leave readers with a lot of good, bad, and sad thoughts, as it takes them through Ireland in the sixties and seventies. The author’s journey will leave readers with a lot of memories, interesting characters, and colorful incidents; some poignant, some brutal, and some good moments.

Ryan Jordan

The Big Yank: Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish by J.P. Sexton is a fascinating and inspiring memoir about the narrator who had to undergo a lot of twists and turns in his life. Starting in the introduction, we get a strong feel for the personality of the author and the sort of life he led, because he says one of the first things he did upon growing up was swear an oath, along with his brother, that if they ever had children they would never lay a finger on them. This sets the tone for the beginning of the volume when we learn that he and his brother were acting as smugglers, even at the tender ages of six and nine. It continues from here to cover his life and moving to the US, as well as the important people in his life who contributed to the man he became.

The stories the narrator chose are incredibly interesting, and he is able to delve into them with ease, bringing the reader along to experience everything first hand. The discussions of his grandfather were particularly engaging, and I think that even with how crazy much of this volume is, everyone would find at least something to relate to in it. The Big Yank: Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish by J.P. Sexton has a roughness to it that actually makes it more engaging, bucking convention and being unafraid to discuss difficult topics. It is a real winner in the world of well-written and personal anthologies.