The Boy at the Gate by Danny Ellis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Boy at the Gate is a deeply personal memoir. It speaks to the lost child in every soul by channeling a boy's confused, innocent, desperate voice to convey the story, then weaving an adult's wisdom and perspective into the book to fill in the gaps and contemplate the life lessons that can be drawn from such a harrowing childhood.
This review is not without bias: I consider its author, Danny Ellis, a friend--mostly because we share a common experience of having our personal journeys palpably affected by the music and life of David Wilcox. We have only met on two occasions--once at a vocal workshop a couple of years ago and more recently at a house concert where I bought this book. But Danny's open and gentle spirit makes it easy to feel he is your friend even after single meeting. He has also been in my house (virtually) on a number of occasions as he gave vocal lessons to my wife via Skype. The reading of this book helps me understand and appreciate more fully the depth of his insights into vocal technique through his decades-long study of the breath.
I have given very few books five stars on Goodreads and I give this five-star review not because Danny is someone I know, but because The Boy at the Gate is an amazing example of memoir done right. Were I to have done a similar review of the CD 800 Voices on which this book was based, I would probably have given it a three- or four-star rating. Despite my affection for singer-songwriters and story songs, I never quite got into Danny's CD, though I loved the openness he displayed in sharing his songs about his experience of being abandoned by his "Ma" and left in the oppressive and abusive environs of the Artane Industrial School in Dublin, Ireland. Now, having read his remarkable account, I look forward to revisiting that CD and taking those songs in with new appreciation.
The Boy at the Gate is Danny's gentle and forgiving telling of what can only be described as a heart-wrenching, soul-crushing and physically abusive childhood. Danny grew up in a home of neglect in Dublin and then, in 1955, was thrown into a Lord of the Flies world with more than 800 other boys from ages six to sixteen. The Artane Industrial School was even worse than being lost on an island with a bunch of boys because there was adult supervision - supervision in the form of severe physical abuse and emotional neglect handed down by a staff of just forty members of the Christian Brotherhood. The abuses of Artane have been well documented by the Ryan Report.
It is also the story of the redemptive power of music and how Danny was able to survive the trauma of the Artane prison by pouring himself into the Artane Boy's Band. Music keeps him grounded and gives him hope. Music gives him a constructive place to push his energy, his anger, his cries of anguish. Music gives him a future--something that many of the sixteen-year-old graduates of Artane were unable to find as the perverse social skills (really, survival skills) they developed on the desolate playground of Artane prove utterly ineffective outside the schoolyard walls.
I found many aspects of this book remarkable: Danny elegantly captures the voice of his little boy self. We see the streets of Dublin through his child eyes and hear it described through his voice of innocence in the truest sense of the word innocent. Even as he recounts his childhood criminal escapades of stealing food for himself and his two younger sisters and twin baby brothers, you understand how limited is his comprehension of the events he witnesses and the emotions he feels.
Danny effectively moves back and forth between his child voice and his own adult voice as he tells the story of how these experiences ultimately unleash a torrent of emotions and memories that quickly take the form of a collection of songs--his 800 Voices CD and, still later, this memoir. The echoes of that young voice resonate with the voice of his adult self and the co-mingling of these distinct voices is a tribute to Danny's gifts as a musician and arranger. That he is able to accomplish this same richness in prose--his second language--as in music is a thing to behold.
I broke my habit of night-time reading to finish the last 25 pages this morning. The closing revelations were truly surprising and moving. His Epilogue, Author's Notes and Acknowledgements appending this memoir were not afterthoughts; they complete the story by adding important context and perspective to the emotional portraits and landscapes he lovingly crafted in the prior pages. Those final pages also demonstrate the remarkable writing abilities of the adult-voiced Danny. The contrast of the early pages with the latter reminded me of experiencing a Monet retrospective; I was dutifully appreciative of Monet's impressionistic works, but came to see them on an entirely new level once I saw his earlier works that included lushly detailed paintings. I was able to see that his Impressionism works, like Danny's childhood recollections, were not lazily slapped together, but were deeply artistic and telling communications of the essence of the captured moment.
Perhaps what was most remarkable to me was the redemption he creates in the telling of it all. He leaves me wanting to be that same spirit--one who understands the human condition and stands ready to forgive and receive forgiveness from others and from myself.
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