“Don’t Forget Me, Bro” by West Virginia Writer John Michael Cummings
By Tim Walker
When I first learned that an accomplished native West Virginian writer is now publishing a fictional novel based on a setting in a “fictional” Pocahontas County, WV, I had to learn more.
Recently I interviewed that author, John Michael Cummings about his new book, “Don’t Forget Me, Bro.” The book is published by the Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
If you expect to recognize Pocahontas County in this book, or even see it referred to by name, you will find neither here. The author explains how an unmentioned Pocahontas County did fit into this book since when he was a boy his grandmother used to take them on vacation from their home in Harpers Ferry across West Virginia, including memorable stays at the Marlinton Motor Inn.
“This novel I put in a place in my mind which was a place where out grandmother used to take us when we were growing up” said John, “Pocahontas County, Greenbrier County, out that way in West Virginia.”
John’s earlier novels, “Ugly to Start With” and “The Night I Freed John Brown” had both been set in John’s hometown of Harpers Ferry.
“So I wanted this book set away from Harper’s Ferry and yet I didn’t want to claim that I knew Pocahontas County so well as to authenticate it by name. I wanted it to be fictional because I knew I would have some generalities in the writing,” John explains.
Still “Don’t Forget Me, Bro” is a very good read and a very intriguing and thought provoking story of a family raised in a deeply rural part of our state. Mark, the youngest of three brothers, left home at an early age for New York where he lived a productive life. His older brother, Steve, remained at home and was diagnosed as being mentally ill. His domineering father who had been physically abusive to Steve considered him to be an embarrassment to the family. On the day of his death, Steve called a now 42 year old Mark to say “don’t forget me, Bro” asked to be buried in a nearby cemetery with family and friends. When Mark returns to his West Virginia home after learning of Steve’s death, he is confronted by his father who wants Steve to be cremated and not buried where Steve had requested. The book proceeds with Mark making discoveries that his brother Steve had actually lived an amazing, artistic and productive life outside of his family’s awareness. The author describes Mark’s accomplishes by bringing to light what he discovers about Steve’s unknown life.
“The younger brother’s quest to understand his older brother has brought his older brother back to life in the pages” says John. “Only another brother could do that, I don’t believe that kind of ascension or resurrection of a person could be made by someone other than a brother or someone really connected like a spouse”
Family conflict arises over the cremation issue and the physical and emotional abuse all three brothers received at the hands of their father.
The story addresses a number of controversial life issues including the death of family members and how we remember and honor them after their passing.
“Death in any family makes people feel … makes them remember” said John “they hurt, they reflect and they become introspective and all of that is part of the mourning process. In this book you mourn along with the family”
The book, according to the author, challenges the reader to consider issues about respecting a deceased’s wishes to be buried not cremated.
“What happens to the dead, are they to be buried or is cremation a respectful and just way of disposing and commemorating?” john asks of us
John goes on say how this book talks about the treatment of family members who were not respected or even liked because they suffered from mental illness.
“The book really takes a hard tackle against the establishment of mental illness and the peddling of drugs, and the blind pushing of drugs when often it’s just a matter of self-esteem needing to be worked on, more of a Holistic approach” said John.
The book also addresses the issue of child abuse and the complex relationships between the two surviving brothers and both of their parents.
One of the interesting facts about this book is that the story is based upon the experiences of John Michael Cummings’ real life family and brother.
“Don’t forget Me, Bro” has received rave reviews from many West Virginia newspapers, large and small as well as from literary reviewers across the nation, and I read it and found it to be darkly thought provoking and yet still entertaining.