Barry Moser is known best for his illustrations. His engravings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland earned a National Book Award. In We Were Brothers, he turns to words as well as illustrations to reflect on his relationship with his brother, Tommy.
Tommy and Barry grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., during the Jim Crow era. Racism abounded, and the Mosers’ community actively exerted white dominance and power over their black neighbors. This in spite of the fact that one of their mother’s closest friends was a black woman from their neighborhood.
Each of the boys had weaknesses in an age and place that had no tolerance for weakness. They fought each other hard, both physically and verbally, always striving for the upper hand. As adults they went their separate ways: Tommy keeping his hometown, traditions, and ideologies, and Barry leaving that life behind, moving to New England and eschewing racism, studying theology, and pursuing art.
Late in life they found common ground, and for a brief time they were able to be brothers in a fuller sense of the word.
Moser’s understated style of writing and his acknowledgment of both his own flawed perspective and his inability to remember events in any other way make this a complex and affecting account of brotherhood. He grapples with the reality that we can only see each other through our own filters and explores how the differences that cause distance and estrangement are not always what they seem.
He also describes the rough-and-tumble time and place of his childhood so well that readers can almost smell the hair pomade, or possibly the smoke from the burning crosses of the KKK.
This memoir of sometimes harsh words and events between brothers tackles ugly truths with grace and dignity. (Algonquin)