Reviewed by Raquel Thorne
Paperback: 251 Pages
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, an imprint of Texas A & M University Press and Texas Book Consortium
Available for purchase soon at Stephen F Austin University Press
It was a hot Phoenix summer day. I was on my way back to my home state to visit a close friend in Sacramento and meet her newborn daughter, and for once, grateful to be inside the airport with its free air conditioning. While waiting for my plane, I decided to start reading Don’t Forget Me, Bro, in which 42-year-old Mark returns home to West Virginia, and his estranged family, for his brother Steve’s funeral. Upon landing in in California, I was remiss to put aside Cummings’ book until my return flight.
While Cummings’ story meanders a bit at the beginning, primarily just Mark’s drive from New York to home, it quickly picks up after Mark turns onto his mother’s street and her dilapidated house. We meet Mark’s surviving brother, Greg, who like Mark and Steve, has succeeded in not succeeding; Mark’s father, the epicenter of abuse and failure; and Mark’s mother, the hunched matron. What unfolds is a story of childhood abuse, the surprisingly bittersweet interactions of a dysfunctional family, and an unexpected understanding of brotherly love.
Mark’s obsessive odyssey to rediscover his brother Steve, who has begged him, “Don’t forget me, Bro,” and in effect, his family, is with little joy but not without hope. While often dark, along the way to self and familial discovery, we meet Whitey, a surprisingly tender character and accomplice, whose portrayal of Steve goes against the grain of familiar lore.
Reading like a memoir, Don’t Forget Me, Bro is often painful, and forces the reader to question what is fact and what is simply perception, reputation, and expectation. At the end, we are left with many of the same questions which plague Mark: What happens to the dead? What is the nature of mental illness? The effect of family brutality? Can one, after over a decade away, truly ever return home? And most haunting: “Was I dwelling on the past? Was I robbing my present?”
A page-turner, but not a feel-good novel, I recommend this for those whose prefer not having all the answers, who relish the deep complexities of family strife, and adore the antihero.
John Michael Cummings‘ short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon 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.
He is the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY for Black History month.
He is also the author of the short story collection Ugly To Start With (West Virginia University Press, 2011), which The Philadelphia Inquirer calls a work of “sharp observation and surpassing grace.”