Southie’s Evolution: Insights from MacDonald’s “All Souls”

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Updated: Sep 04, 2023
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Growing Up in Southie: MacDonald’s Early Years

Having grown up in the Old Colony Housing Project in South Boston, a dominantly Irish-Catholic community, Michael Patrick MacDonald is a tough kid. From a child to a grown man, he has witnessed the good and bad of Southie, a place that gives people hope and shatters them as well. Now, as an activist against violence and crimes and also as a writer, MacDonald recalls his family’s life stories in his memoir All Souls, a book that leaves readers in tears of both sorrow and astonishment. In his plainly written, powerful memoir, MacDonald tells stories of his mother, Helen King, a strong and colorful Irish woman sustaining the lives of her eleven kids, and remembers the four brothers he lost to violence and suicide in a poor Irish neighborhood in the late twentieth century.

Tales of Crime and Community Silence

MacDonald was one of eight surviving children born (of several fathers) to his mother, who played the accordion in local Irish pubs to supplement her welfare checks. As a member of Southie, MacDonald experiences his neighbors’ loyalty to their community, their blatant racism, and their hopelessness when facing the organized crime and entrenched drug culture that was destroying young lives. MacDonald’s recollection of his life in Southie is filled with vivid episodes, especially the family’s loss of his brother Frankie, his mother’s favorite kid with a bright future as a young and talented boxer.

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While I read about the murder of his companions after the police shot him in an armored car robbery, I found myself completely shocked. A young man who brought honor and respect to the community died not because he got shot by a cop but because his fellows strangled him, fearing that he might release something about the crime group that was involved.

Family Dynamics and Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory

However, a more brutal part of this story is that organized crime is never a secret in Southie; residents know about that, but they just keep their mouths shut so they won’t get into trouble themselves. They indirectly acted as bystanders in a life-loss incident. Indifferent people were not the first to blame; at least, they were ignorant of who was the person that manipulates crime. The most shocking is what was revealed at the end of the chapter, the accusation that the FBI, the most authoritative investigation agency in the United States, was paying Southie’s leading gangster, Whitey Bulger, as an informant.

The government was also playing around with innocent lives; only people who lived in the community could feel the pain of losing their loved ones to violence. MacDonald and his siblings’ growing stories also exemplify Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory pretty well in the book. Helen King, the mother of this huge family, plays a very significant role in MacDonald’s kids’ development. Sustaining a life in a housing project is already tough; it’s even harder when she has so many kids and is a single mother or a mother with an abusive husband.

However, King never lets the tough life depress her. She dresses up pretty to play accordion in clubs; she always has a pocket full of toast to give to those who have less; she doesn’t collapse when her kids die, and instead, she never gives up exploring the truth of her boys’ deaths. She is a wonderful mother who passes her hopeful life attitude to her kids. The MacDonalds are the tough ones in the neighborhood. She’s definitely a protective factor in MacDonal’s Microsystem of development. The second level of bioecological theory is the Mesosystem. An example of that is Helen’s interaction with MacDonald’s new friend when the MacDonald family first moves to the Old Colony housing project.

They were not welcomed by the neighbors at first. However, there was a boy who showed kindness to MacDonald and befriended him. As opposed to suspecting what’s the boy’s motivation, Helen gladly welcomed MacDonald’s new friend to their new house. She kindly interacted with the child rather than scolded him for being friends with a new neighbor like his own mother did. Helen exerted positive effects on his son’s new friendship with Southie.

The Busing Crisis and Southie’s Evolution

Before reading this book, the infamous Boston busing crisis was known to me as only a failure to break institutionalized racism. Nevertheless, the complications beyond the topic are striking. Through this book, I learned about the crisis from a Southie perspective. The policy enforcer didn’t even consider the distance that kids have to travel for school every day if they have to be transferred to another distant area. Siblings may result in attending different schools; parents have to adjust their family time with their kids since they might come home at different time intervals because of different bus times.

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Black kids have to suffer more discrimination from their white peers for the mistake that policymakers made, and it has nothing to do with their own choices. It was not just a failure; it was a disaster, an unwise choice that lacked consideration from reality. The busing crisis really irritated Southie people and reinforced the stereotypical view in the media that they are racists; Southie was a victim of such a farce. However, so did black people. MacDonald described how residents in Southie attacked the blacks verbally and physically; they even seriously injured a poor Haitian guy who was completely innocent in this whole busing crisis. Southie did make mistakes in the chaos as well.

Even though MacDonald does not excuse Southie’s racism, I’m still curious about how Southie people’s attitude toward black people changes over time. At the end of the book, MacDonald does clarify that people at Roxbury are not interested in taking over Southie’s housing project. However, he knows that. Do Southie people know that? Society evolves as time passes by, and how Southie evolves from a “racist” community, as the media portrayed it, to a more accepting Southie today remains a potential topic for the book to explore more. Despite that, the book paints a frightening portrait of a community under intense economic and social stress and has a strong plea for social justice.


  • MacDonald, M. P. (1999). All Souls: A family story from Southie. Beacon Press.

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Southie's Evolution: Insights from MacDonald's "All Souls". (2023, Sep 04). Retrieved from