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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326

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.

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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 Jerome to be the referee. Although the fight ends in a standoff, Jerome, trying to be fair, declares the other boy to be the winner. Charles, betrayed and devastated, attacks Jerome. Charles shoplifts candy from the local store and eventually involves Jerome in the misdeed. They eat too much, read a lot, and try various hobbies. As a young adolescent, Charles becomes interested in a girl named Dewey. She encourages his attentions for a time but then rejects him for another boy.

Eventually, Martin obtains a teaching job, and the boys become interested in high-school activities such as basketball and speech. Martin develops acute appendicitis and almost dies, and Jerome and Charles drive to the nearby town to visit him. On the way home, Jerome, suddenly possessed by the need to speed, loses control of the car, and it crashes into a marker in the cemetery. Both of Charles’s legs are badly broken; they do not heal easily or quickly. Charles becomes involved with a girl, Bobbie, and Jerome becomes attached to her friend. The boys are increasingly obsessed with sexual exploration, and they find it increasingly difficult to reconcile these feelings with the admonitions of the priest. Bobbie pushes Charles into having intercourse, but Charles fails even to have an orgasm. Disappointment, guilt, and a fear of being trapped cause him to break off the relationship.

In high school, Jerome participates in speech and drama, but after taking care of Charles and his father, he considers going into medicine. Charles, who has always wanted to be a doctor, becomes interested in speech and drama. After his first year of college, Jerome does switch his major to premedical studies, while Charles enrolls in speech and theater. Although they are roommates again, Charles feels that their paths have crossed and that they are moving away from each other. Charles stops going to church altogether when he hears that the campus priest buys a new Cadillac every year while ignoring all the problems in the world.

Charles meets Rick Purkeet, an upperclassman who is also involved in theater and who also lost his mother at an early age. Rick makes homosexual advances toward Charles. Charles feels some attraction to Rick, who seems to be a kindred spirit, but he resists Rick’s advances. One night, after getting drunk on Rick’s liquor, Charles threatens to kill himself.

Charles meets Jill through the college theater. They consummate their relationship, and Charles assumes that she will want to marry him. Jill, however, breaks off with him when she gets involved with a fraternity man. At one point, with no money, no girlfriend, and no hope, Charles contemplates suicide again. At a graduation party for Jerome, Charles discovers Jill kissing Jerome; he loses control, hits Jill, becomes hysterical, and decides to leave for California. Jerome assures him that he and others do care about him, and Charles decides to stay.

Jerome goes on to medical school, while Charles, still in college, meets a fair-haired, blue-eyed woman named Katherine and falls in love. Her father hopes to break them up, so he sends Katherine to school elsewhere. Charles decides to go to New York to try his luck at acting; it is during this time that he stays at the Chesro.

After this, the main narrative line moves ahead rapidly. Charles and Katherine are married, and Jerome marries Julie, a black woman who teaches English. There are references to Charles’s new show, which is doing well. Both marriages are having problems. Charles and Katherine have a daughter, Becky. Jerome tells Charles that their father has cancer, and two years later, Jerome tells Charles that the cancer has reappeared. In the fall of 1975, Martin goes to New Mexico, where Jerome is living, and Charles, separated from Katherine, goes to help take care of him. This Charles tries not to drink and reads the Bible.

Martin dies in March of 1976. At the funeral, Katherine and Charles try living together again, but Charles must go to North Dakota to take part in a bicentennial celebration. Unable to handle the stress, he starts drinking. Most of the trip is a drunken blur, and he apparently sleeps with Jerome’s childhood friend. Back in Illinois, he immediately confesses to Katherine. Feeling that he has failed both personally and professionally, increasingly obsessed with thoughts of guilt and death, Charles slashes his wrists and is carried away in an ambulance. He gives a signal to start a recording. The last thing to appear is a poem in which Charles tells his brother to remember their life in North Dakota and their experience there, because the bond between them is formed by their memories of each other.

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