“We Were Brothers”
Author: Barry Moser
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Price: $22.00 (Hardcover)
Barry Moser is a name familiar to many, but not as an author. An artist, Moser is the illustrator or designer of 350 books, including “Moby Dick,” “Frankenstein,” “The Divine Comedy,” and even the King James Bible, and he won a National Book Award for his edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
“We Were Brothers” is utterly divorced from that world of fine art and beauty.
Barry Moser and his older brother, Tom, grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1940s and 50s. The family was poor, not starving, but certainly living a narrow life. They are all dead now, and only Barry is alive to tell the tale, which is, to me, sad rather than tragic.
Moser writes: “without opportunity to be otherwise, Tommy and I were racists, born into the Byzantine machinations of the Jim Crow South.” The gist of Moser’s story is how he, Barry, escaped the racism and anti-Semitism of that toxic time and place and Tom did not.
It is a brother story. Moser wishes it were like the brother stories “Legends of the Fall” or “A River Runs Through It,” “contentious, yet deeply affectionate,” but it is not. The Moser brothers fought, hardened their positions and were estranged, silent, for decades.
It was partly about race.
Across from the Moser home, on Shallowford Road, was the home of Verneta, Barry’s mom’s best friend. After his dad’s death, before his mother’s remarriage to Chesher Holmes, Mom was overwhelmed. Moser writes: “Had it not been for Mother’s childhood friend Verneta, I am not sure she could have coped.”
Verneta was black and she was a friend, not a nanny or mammy; Mother, Barry, and Tom “adored Verneta,” but her blackness was a more powerful force than the “deep affections” between the families. “There was always a pleasant harmony between our families because, as my mother often said, we all knew our places, both black and white. Knew and respected them.”
The family loved Verneta as an individual, says Moser, but “as far as our family was concerned the black race was slow, shiftless, and ignorant.” Moser’s family made a strange exception for “Very smart individual black folks . . . They were relegated to a place of out-of-the-ordinary loathing: Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Ralph Abernathy.” In “special places of contempt” were Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole.
No one saw any contradiction in all this.
In the summer of 1957, on the road in front of their house, there was a “Klavalcade,” a Klan convoy of cars and trucks with loudspeakers repeating: “Never forgit yore place. Never forgit yore place.” Verneta was overwhelmed: she sobbed over and over “what’m I gonna do? What’m I gonna do?” Her “face [was] distorted by terror and ashened by fear.” Fifty-eight years later, Moser writes that for him that event was an epiphany (Moser’s word) and this memoir joins the shelf of reformed racist books such as Chervis Isom’s “The Newspaper Boy” and Tim Parrish’s “Fear and What Follows”—but Tommy never changed.
For finally mysterious reasons, Barry was not as solidly in racism’s grip as Tommy. One day in 1950 on a public bus, Barry was tired and sat in the “colored” section because the white section was full. When they got home, Barry writes: Tommy, who always bullied him, hit him over and over. Barry was “bleeding from …nose and mouth. Then [Tommy] kicked [him]…again. And again,” saying, “Don’t you never sit with n[xxx]s again, you hear me?”
There are some powerful scenes in “Brothers.” The writing is clear, occasionally moving. The details of adolescent life in Chattanooga in the fifties are rendered in detail. This is not a memoir by a powerful person or a famous writer that would give us insight into political decision making or the creative process. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted these days that the competent depiction of the everyday can put the life of a particular time and place on the record or reassure some readers that the issues of sibling rivalry and the terrible power of culture in character formation are universal.
As their childhood years passed, the brothers fought often and grew farther apart. Tommy dropped out of high school, Baylor School for boys; Barry graduated in 1958 and went on to UT Chattanooga and then an artistic career in New England where he is now a professor at Smith College. Tommy, surprisingly, became a banker. He had a head for figures.
In 1997, they exchanged letters, which are printed here, and began some healing. Each explained his position and saw the other more clearly. There was some reconciliation, but no real happy ending. There were phone calls and they saw each other occasionally.Tommy died in 2005. They “had eight years of brotherhood” out of Tommy’s 68.
Moser is haunted by why, given the same genetic inheritance and environment, they were so different. I suppose Adam and his wife wondered why their boys, Cain and Abel, just couldn’t get along.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”