BOOK REVIEW: 'Ugly to Start With': Interconnected Short Stories of a Lad Growing Up in Harpers Ferry WV

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Ugly to Start With': Interconnected Short Stories of a Lad Growing Up in Harpers Ferry WV
Whatever it was, if it was it was ugly to start with, or turned ugly, we were ashamed of it and wanted it to go away -- Story "Ugly to Start With" (Page 29). 

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Friedrich Nietzsche, in "Twilight of the Idols" (1888) wrote "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."  Jason Stevens, the central character in a wonderful collection of 13 short stories by John Michael Cummings, "Ugly to Start With" (Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University press, 144 pages, paperback,  $16.99) might beg to disagree with Herr Nietzche.

Jason  is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. He's a lot like Josh Connors, the central character in Cummings' "The Night I Freed John Brown" (see my review below). He's growing up in a tourist town back when the Blue Highways dominating post-war America -- roads that are smaller -- are beginning to be supplanted by the Interstate highways, bringing even more tourists to the town where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join.

Jason is a talented artist, dreaming of attending an art school in Washington, DC, only sixty-five miles away, but he's failing in art class in high school. He's fighting to survive his adolescent years, with a father who doesn't encourage him, two wild and crazy brothers, a mother who's dominated by her husband, but dreams of Italy when she and Jason pick up a hitchhiking Italian artist from Florence who thinks the area around Charles Town and Harpers Ferry looks a lot like Tuscany in the opening story  "The World Around Us."
John Michael Cummings
John Michael Cummings

Jason's a sensitive kid, not a good thing in rough and ready West Virginia, where macho is the coin of the realm. Having lived for 16 years in West Virginia, from 1992 to 2008, I can attest to that. Jason confronts growing up with humor and common sense. He doesn't hesitate to visit a black girl who's a classmate to draw her portrait in "The Scratchboard Project." He accepts with good grace the renaming of him as Jed -- as in Jed Clampett of "The Beverly Hillbillies" by Shanice and her gigantic brother Tyrone. When Tyrone and the rest of the family leave their home in the black enclave of Bolivar, next door to Harpers Ferry,  to visit the new Kmart, he and Shanice share dreams and each other in her basement room.  

He visits his grandfather, who's reinvented himself after the death of his wife, in "Indians and Teddy Bears Were Here First." The formerly drab and predictable grandfather has morphed into a 70-year old "yuppie," living in Sunrise Hills, a gated community with a glamorous  woman he met in Florida. Granddad's companion, Monica, questions Jason about protests in the community about renaming Harpers Ferry Bolivar, the adjacent, poorer town named for the South American liberator. She's also dubious about his "adjusting" to live in Washington, DC, where he wants to attend "Corcoran School of Art & Design...I started spelling out for her, too 500 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004." And then it comes in a flash to Jason about his granddad and Monica. No, I won't say what; you'll want to read it for yourself.  

As a cat fancier, of both the domestic versions, and the gigantic, graceful extinct-in-the-wild Barbary lionesses I saw on my visit the other day to the Texas Zoo, in Victoria, TX, I shed a tear or two reading about Skinny Minnie, the stray silver tabby who comforted Jason when he was laid up with an attack of shingles, but who declined to become a house cat and accepted the dangers of a outdoor existence. The epigraph  about Minnie, in the title story, suggested to me that maybe Jason wanted ugliness to go away and leave him to his fate.  

In "Carter" Jason stumbles on a beautiful A-Frame house and its gay occupant while visiting the area where his girlfriend Lisa lived before she moved to Omaha where her father had a new job. Jason's riding a mini-bike, the kind that starts with a rope like a lawnmower and he "spilled off the bike" to avoid hitting a deer. "As I sat rubbing my leg, the woods became quiet around me. I looked up and imagined Lisa coming toward me through the trees." It's a beautiful and evocative story as Jason tries to understand Carter, a gay man living alone and recalling his loves of women and men.  

In "The Wallet" Jason sympathizes with Melinda as his mom comforts a woman over her treatment by Melinda's apparently abusive husband Billy. Only later, when Jason spends some time with Billy and examines the contents of his discarded wallet does he begins to see Billy's side of the story.  

The stories all show aspects of the people in Harpers Ferry and vicinity and reveal the many sides of young Jason as he's growing up. It's a book for young adults and adults who can now laugh -- maybe -- at events that once drove them to tears of frustration.   

About the author


John Michael Cummings (born 1963 in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia) is an American short story writer and novelist. His short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007. Cummings lives in Orlando, Florida, with his cat Sentry.   * * *
Here's my review from March 17, 2008 

 
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Night I Freed John Brown': An Exciting, Fun Book for Young Readers -- And Their Parents 
 
By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net Book Critic 
 
It's always a pleasure to come across books I can recommend for young readers. I can do so without reservation for "The Night I Freed John Brown" (Philomel, 276 pages, $17.99) by West Virginia native John Michael Cummings. 
 
Now a resident of Brooklyn, NY, his novel -- expanded from a novella called 'The House of My Father' -- features a large and well-drawn cast of Harpers Ferry, WV residents -- especially Josh Connors, his new friend Luke Richmond, Josh's "mean" dad Bill Connors and his long-suffering mom Katie. It is the kind of youth novel adults can enjoy as much as their teenage children. Maybe even more, as they reflect on what a horrendous age 13 -- the age of Josh and Luke -- was for them! 
 
Harpers Ferry is an unusual town, since much of its territory is included in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, creating a kind of town vs. gown split that's reminiscent of a college town. This naturally brought to mind one of my all-time favorite movies, "Breaking Away," written by Steve Tesich (1942-1996), based on his experiences as a student at Indiana University in Bloomington. The 1979 film, directed by Peter Yates, starred Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Parkersburg, WV native Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie and garnered an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Tesich's original screenplay about a town kid who organized a team to compete in IU's Little 500 bike race. 
 
Like Dave, played by Dennis Christopher in "Breaking Away," Josh is drawn to the sophisticated Richmond family who live next door in a spotless house. Niles Richmond is a divorced dad who works for the Park Service as a historian and to Josh he's everything Bill Connors is not. Richmond is kind, loves music and plays and enlists Josh to portray one of John Brown's sons in a play in which Niles Richmond is John Brown. Naturally, Bill Connors opposes his son's participation in the play, so Josh does it without telling his mom and dad. 
 
There are elements of a ghost story in "The Night I Freed John Brown," with the opening of the novel taking place in the house where Bill Connors grew up. The five-story house was a Roman Catholic retreat house, but it's now vacant, except for occasional visits by transients -- and Josh and Luke. 
 
When Bill learns that Josh and Luke have visited the house, he has one of his frequent tantrums, prompting the inquisitive Josh to probe the matter even more. Josh would make a great investigative reporter -- or writer -- since Cummings said much of the novel is based on his experiences growing up in Harpers Ferry in the 1970s. 
 
The novel also is educational, in a non-invasive way, since it explains to history-deprived young people -- and their parents -- the connection between radical abolitionist John Brown and the slave revolt he planned in 1859 in the federal armory town of Harpers Ferry, VA, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. 
 
The "everything is illuminated" ending of "The Night I Freed John Brown" --don't worry, I'm not going to give it away -- provides a satisfactory resolution of Josh's concerns that he's the child Katie wanted, not Bill. Yes, Josh is the youngest of three children and his two brothers, Jerry and Robbie, are merciless teasers of Josh. 
 
Although it's not scheduled for release until May, the novel is available for pre-sale at Amazon.com, Cummings says. It's one of the best novels I've read in a long time and, as I noted, it's not just for young people. Philomel Books is a division of the Penguin Group, an outstanding major publisher. Calling all librarians out there: Buy this book! You might have to buy multiple copies. 
 
Author's web site: www.johnmichaelcummings.com

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