Lexlingua's Reviews > Ugly to Start With

Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings
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Mar 22, 2012

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Read in February, 2012

There have been authors who have brought little-known lands to life through their books, like Prince Edward Island in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, and the Guernsey Islands in Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Add to that list, author John M. Cummings’ Ugly to Start With, which is set in a small historic town of Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, USA.

As someone with not too much knowledge of the American Civil War (1861-65), Harpers Ferry proved to be a revelation to me. The Harpers Ferry Armoury was being used as both arsenal and armoury before the civil war, which was raided by the great abolitionist leader John Brown in an armed slave revolt in 1859 [See picture below]. This revolutionary and his small band of men were however defeated by the U.S. marine, Robert E. Lee. John Brown’s act of bravery was, in a famous trial, condemned as treason, and Brown was executed.
Since then, Harpers Ferry, as the first stronghold of black freedom, has been a major historic town, and frequented by many tourists every year. This town is located on a floodplain at the confluence of two rivers, and is surrounded by the ‘Mountain’. The town currently only has a population of 286, one of those places where everyone knows everyone else.

All this and more is the subject of Cummings’ book, Ugly to Start With. Ugly to Start With is not a continuous novel, but is a collection of stories at various points in the life of the narrator, Jason. Jason is a sensitive, artistic teenage boy who has hopes of escaping Harpers Ferry, and his father’s shadow. He is the typical small-town boy who wants to escape and make a better life for himself.

What’s the meaning of the title, you will wonder. When I started reading the book, I thought Jason would be some kind of ugly duckling to swan story, which in a way, is true. Jason and his family live in a small, tumbledown house. His father is, to put it mildly, not the best of men, and is a tad too much status-conscious. Things that are ugly to start with, or things that become ugly, are not of much importance, such as an old, disfigured and bleeding cat. Jason has a secret fear that he is too much like his boorish Irish father, and that his more cultivated English mother has mollycoddled him into a wimp.

Life in a small town can be terribly constrained and Jason unconsciously resists the trappings of stereotypical labels and wants to deserve better. What is admirable about Cummings’ book is that he is consistent in the characterization of Jason. Cummings never directly states the shades of Jason’s character, but reveals them to us through certain events in Jason's teenage life. These short narratives are rather more in the form of diary journalings of an adolescent boy, however, and sometimes I would get confused about the timeline and the narrator’s age.

My favourites among these journal-like entries were ‘John Brown the Quaker’, ‘The Scratchboard Project’, ‘Rusty Clackford’, and ‘Carter’. In ‘John Brown the Quaker’, Jason is part of a play about John Brown’s famous trial scene, and the lawyer in me loved it to pieces. In the ‘Scratchboard Project’, we get to see the subtle racial tensions that exist between the blacks and whites, and how Jason proves himself to be quite different from his bigoted father. In ‘Carter’, I lived through Jason’s fear of being molested when his curiosity leads him to become entangled with a neurotic tourist. In ‘Rusty Clackford’, I fell in love with Jason when he pretended alongwith his old neighbour Rusty who is deluded that his wife still lives. The tales always have one purpose— to throw light on Jason as he comes of age.
Most stories in the book have abrupt endings, and I would have liked to follow Jason out of his teenage years into the future, when he goes to his much-sought-after art school and how he continues to relate to his dysfunctional family and the eccentric mountain folk. He has all the potential to grow into a truly fine fellow.


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