By John Michael Cummings
published October 1, 2011
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.
Ugly to Start With is divided into 13 chapters; and though they are in chronological order, they don't necessarily follow each other. It's more like 13 glimpses into Jason Stevens life over a period of indeterminate years of his adolescence. However, I still felt like I got to know Jason as a character and believed his journey through the most confusing time in almost anyone's life.
Cummings doesn't pull any punches as far as content - he tackles abuse, sexuality, racism, familial disfunction, deliquency - but I could tell that he used restraint in the narration of such serious and often uncomfortable topics. That being said, be forewarned there is some very strong language. (It was still a little out of my comfort zone.)
It isn't the feel-good story of the year, by any means, and yet, there is some feeling of triumph overall (most specifically the last two chapters). It gives you hope for Jason's future.
Ugly is tightly written, has a strong voice, and is emotionally engaging. Despite the sometimes (not all of it!) heavy content, I found it a fascinating read, and found myself drawn back to it out of curiosity. What would happen to Jason next? How would he cope with it? It also has many moments that show Jason's geniune naivety and humor.
I would give it 7/10 stars.
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank-you to Mr. Cummings for his generosity!