“Ugly to Start With” by John Michael Cummings, A Dysfunctional Family

“Ugly to Start With” by John Michael Cummings  (2011) – 169 pages

Somewhere I read that the Stevens family in “Ugly to Start With” is dysfunctional.   Dysfunctional? Compared to what?  Compared to your own family?  Ha, Ha.  Is there some dividing line that separates functional families from the rest of us? See for yourselves. 

 “Ugly to Start With” is about the Stevens family of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s told in connected stories all from teenage son Jason’s point of view. 

 Jason’s parents are in a mixed marriage.  His father is Irish, his mother is English.  His father is a vehement racist who uses the ‘N word’ when talking about black people who mostly live in the adjoining town of Bolivar  Perhaps it is because his father is a little guy explains why he is so angry and belligerent. He has no use for his ‘artistic’ son Jason either.

 . On the other hand, Jason’s mother and her family are civil to everyone.  The relatives in Jason’s mother’s family say that ‘Mom was the unlucky daughter in her family, marrying Dad’.  The Stevens family lives in the worst house of any white family in Harper’s Ferry, and his father won’t let any guests inside the house.

Jason’s father does have his charms especially when he plays music on his steel guitar.  With his music and his colorful words, he manages to have a thing going on with a neighborhood woman.  By the middle of the book, Jason’s parents are divorced, but Jason continues to see more than enough of his father. You get a really good picture of the family situation here.

 This situation may seem kind of extreme to you, but nearly always when two people marry, there are going to be differences between the two and their two families.   They may be subtle differences, but they can become major at any time.   

John Michael Cummings has a simple unadorned writing style that makes these stories more powerful than they otherwise would be.  He captures the details of this eastern West Virginia tourist town of Harpers Ferry and the mountain area surrounding it and still conveys the charged emotional life of this family through provocative vignettes. Cummings previously published a well-regarded young adult novel called ”The Night I Freed John Brown”.

Within the last twelve months, I’ve read three story collections by men which strive to tell the honest painful truth about their fictional broken families, “Greetings From Below” by David Phillip Mullins in Las Vegas, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres in New York, and now “Ugly to Start With” in West Virginia.  All three of these collections achieve a deeper honesty about family life than we have had before.  

“Ugly to Start With” is a fine addition to the literature of the broken family. Happy families may all be alike, but dysfunctional families are way more interesting.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I like your comments about “dysfunctional,” because, yes, all families are.

    This collection by Cummings looks good.


  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Yes, it looks like a trend. Children from the broken ‘dysfunctional’ families of the Seventies and Eighties are grown up now writing their own stories of what it was like back then. “Ugly to Start With’ is a strong entry.


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