Ugly To Start With

Ugly To Start With
Age Range
12+
Release Date
October 01, 2011
ISBN
978-1-935978-08-4
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Jason Stevens is growing up in 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 backwoods 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 is a short story writer and novelist from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He is the award-winning author of The Night I Freed John Brown. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Ugly To Start With - A Review
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Reviewed by Niles Reddick

On the heels of his Paterson Prize-winning novel The Night I Freed John Brown, John Michael Cummings has offered fans another look at the historical and picturesque Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in his new collection Ugly to Start With.

The collection is comprised of thirteen stories, all of which have previously been published in prestigious literary journals across the country, including one, “Scratchboard Project,” which landed him a Pushcart nomination and Honorable mention in Best American Short Stories.

In Ugly to Start With, Cummings chronicles part of the teenager Jason Stevens’ life in the 1970’s in Harpers Ferry. Stevens is the quintessential artist, always struggling and finding it difficult to communicate. A sensitive, philosophical, “Mama’s boy,” he has his sights set on being an artist in Washington, D.C., but what Cummings paints on his canvas for us is a realization that art is life. And that you can find it no matter where you are.

Stevens discovers that he is surrounded by stories and colorful characters to paint—whether it’s his angry father who uses profanity to the point that “hell was like a fly that wouldn’t leave him alone”; the drunk wife beater Billy who is suffering from mouth cancer and his wife doesn’t know it; Rusty, an old deaf man who talks to his dead wife; Junior, who is laid out dead in a mountain shack with a dime keeping one eye lid shut and a quarter keeping the other shut; Carter, the old gay outsider who makes a play for Stevens; or Shantice, who lives in Bolivar where other blacks live and who Stevens sketches in the basement of her family’s old house.

It is through Stevens’ interactions with these characters, coupled with his own dysfunctional family relationahips, that Cummings’ talent shines. And while the reader knows Stevens will depart on the Amtrak and head for art school, Cummings leaves us all with a lasting impression of Stevens’ community, and the fact that life is ultimately a work of art.

Good Points
"In Ugly to Start With, set in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, Cummings tackles the challenges of boyhood adventure and family conflict in a taut, crystalline style that captures the triumphs and tribulations of small-town life. He has a gift for transcending the particular experiences to his characters to capture the universal truths of human affection and suffering--emotional truths that the members of his audience will recognize from their own experiences of childhood and adolescence.”
--Jacob Appel, author of Dyads and The Vermin Episode
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