Study Guide

Born Brothers

by Larry Woiwode

Born Brothers Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Woiwode calls this novel a “companion volume” to Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and it returns to the characters and setting of that work. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, Born Brothers is filtered through the perceptions of Charles Neumiller; through his memories, he is seeking a meaning and purpose for his life. As elsewhere, Woiwode eschews chronological narrative, and the present is submerged deeply into the past. The novel progresses through various memories of Charles. To speak of a plot or setting is unhelpful; to force Woiwode’s uniquely fashioned version of family chronicle into such misleading categories is to misconstrue Woiwode’s vision—that lives do not neatly fit into prescribed, sequential patterns. Family members appear in a seemingly random way that shows Charles’s quest for an answer to the plaintive cry of his heart: Is there life after childhood?

A gifted raconteur and orator, Charles has followed his voice into a New York career as a “voiceover” in commercials and as a “radio personality” focused on small-town life. He is thus accustomed to creating illusions and re-creating forgotten, homely images in the minds of his listeners. In fact, he is incapable of conceiving of a meaningful world outside the psychic landscape of his own family structure. Having endured assaults on his marriage and having struggled with alcohol, Charles leaves New York behind for his beloved North Dakota. A suitable anthem for Charles Neumiller’s life can be drawn from his own musings: “Imagination is, indeed, memory—that is more profound than any fantasy.” The events and...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Born Brothers Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Based on Larry Woiwode’s own life, Born Brothers reveals the inside of Charles Neumiller’s mind as he remembers, rearranges, and finds meaning in events from his past. These memories appear as short, poetic fragments told in the first person and in present tense, with often-abrupt shifts in place and time. Letters, journals, poems, and scripts provide some information; they also serve as prompts that stimulate the thinking of a much older Charles who thinks about making ready for death.

Born Brothers is divided into seven sections. The main story line, mostly in chronological order, follows Charles from his earliest childhood memories to a suicide attempt when he is in his mid-thirties. Interspersed throughout the book are memories of the time when Charles, then in his early twenties, lived in a hotel called the Chesro in New York. He describes this as a “pilgrimage” and a “retreat.” Occasionally, an older Charles, one who has survived the suicide attempt, appears. This Charles no longer drinks, is a caring husband and father, and has become a devout Christian who says that religious principles have turned his life around.

The book opens with a letter written in 1964 by Jerome, then a medical student in Chicago, to Charles, who is trying to break into acting in New York. Jerome announces that he is planning to visit Charles. An older Charles says that the sight of this letter triggers memories of that time. A brief image of his suicide attempt surfaces, and then his memories go back to his early childhood in Hyatt, North Dakota, where his father is a teacher.

Early childhood is the happiest time for Charles. Jerome is only a year older; they look like twins, are dressed like twins, and do everything together. Although they have a growing number of siblings, they pay little attention to them. Their father is a devout Catholic, and the boys attend St. Mary Margaret Elementary School and serve as altar boys. Charles’s heroes are Dr. Rex Morgan and Joe Louis. He imagines he would like to be a doctor, but he also discovers his talent for acting, an activity that his mother, whom he loves dearly, encourages.

Childhood holds some painful memories also. His mother, afraid he will turn out badly, punishes him severely and often. The older Charles, who has a four-year-old son, comments that children spend much of their time grieving. Charles also develops an early awareness of death when he almost dies from pneumonia.

The summer after Charles completes the third grade, the Neumiller family moves to Illinois, where Martin has been promised a teaching job. After they move, everything goes wrong. The teaching job falls through, the family cannot find a place to live and must stay with Martin’s parents in their partially finished house, and Alpha is pregnant again with her sixth child. Martin goes to work for his brother’s construction company, and the family moves into a converted gas station. Alpha loses the child, then succumbs to a kidney disorder and dies.

Their mother dead and their father lost in his own grief, Jerome and Charles are adrift. When a classmate taunts Charles because he has no mother, Charles challenges him to a boxing match with...

(The entire section is 1326 words.)