Jason Stevens is growing up in the picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.
Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwards ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town.
Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.
John Michael Cummings follows up his excellent young adult novel The Night I Freed John Brown with another tale of a young man growing up in his native Harpers Ferry. The new book, Ugly to Start With, is due for release in October of 2011. This time, Cummings has collected a series of previously-published short stories and intertwined them to form a composite novel that almost lives up to his previous book and certainly tackles more varied and mature themes than its predecessor.
His new protagonist, Jason, endures thirteen episodes of misadventure in the tourist trap town, many centered around his dysfunctional family. He witnesses racism, homophobia, social class clashing, and tawdry affairs, all the while trying to define his own morality. The adolescent artist struggles with his sexuality and gender identity, and with the varying expectations of his parents, grandfather, peers, and neighbors, ultimately reaching a non-climactic conclusion that promises him escape from Harpers Ferry but that leaves his future ambiguous.
The novel provides a three-dimensional focal character in Jason, and the supporting cast receives adequate characterization, especially considering that many of them appear in only one story of the collection. The only potentially disappointing character to Cummings fans might be Jason’s father, who is far less intriguing and complex than his counterpart in The Night I Freed John Brown.
The pacing of the story cycle is also not as satisfying as it was in the previous work, but that is to be expected because of its deliberately fragmental nature. Each story within the collection is quite taut in its own right, and the flow between the stories is smooth enough to prevent the shifting between episodes to be too jarring. A narrative through-line thankfully exists to ensure that most, if not all, of the stories do not feel disposable to the greater work.
“The Fence” (in which a family project leads to a disastrous revelation), “Carter” (in which Jason finds himself in an awkward friendship with an older homosexual man), and “The Scratchboard Project”(in which Jason sketches a young black woman in a nearby poor town) stand out as the most enthralling of the thirteen stories, but each piece is enjoyable and worthy of a read as a standalone narrative.
As a whole, it is not quite as cohesive or driven as his first novel, but Ugly to Start With is another satisfying piece of literature from the talented Cummings, once again meeting his standard for intricately-detailed and beautifully-composed prose. All parts of the whole are quirky, fun, and compelling, and the strongest of the stories are worth the purchase of the book alone. I look forward to taking further literary journeys with Mr. Cummings to Harpers Ferry if he continues to deliver such high-quality, thoughtful, and touching works.
Ugly to Start With, which is targeted at a juvenile audience, may contain material that some parents would find objectionable. The novel tackles its controversial topics with unwavering honesty and presents its characters’ opinions on race, class, and sexual orientation with a level of verisimilitude that does not allow for political correctness. It authentically reflects actual biases that would have been held by the people in the time and setting of the novel.
As such, some characters use strong language, including homophobic and racial slurs, and younger readers may not understand the context of the usage. Figures such as the protagonist’s father are crude and offensive, and Cummings allows Jason to be confused and even misled by the dangerous ideals of some of these characters before discovering and critiquing their flaws.
Parents and teachers should take special care to explain to young people reading the book that the bigotry of these characters does not reflect the author’s views and are present for the sake of exposing the inherent problems of such close-minded thinking. The novel offers an excellent source for discussion with children on these social issues if utilized properly in the home and in the classroom.
Reading level: Young Adult/Juvenile Fiction
Format: Paperback, 176 pages (Advance Reader Copy)
Publisher: West Virginia University Press (October 2011)