‘Brothers’ by George Howe Colt

“Even when I don’t know where my brothers are at a given moment, I feel connected to them as surely as if there were an artery — or at least an extra-long, extra-strong strand of drool — that ran from my heart to each of theirs.” — George Howe Colt, “Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History”

When Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was sentenced to life in prison last month, The New York Times ran a feature story on his younger brother, Billy —  former University of Massachusetts president and Massachusetts senator.

The brothers — one a criminal, the other a politician — couldn’t have seemed more different. But their brotherly bond ultimately cost Billy his career.

The younger Bulger brother was forced to leave his University gig in 2003 when he refused to divulge his fugitive brother’s whereabouts.

“That he was a ‘brother’ may be a fitting epitaph for Mr. [Billy] Bulger, 79, as he and Whitey, 84, resign themselves to the likelihood that Whitey will someday die in prison,” wrote Times’ reporter Katharine Seelye.

But what does being a “brother” mean?

Massachusetts native George Howe Colt explores that with his 480-page book, “Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History,” a braided essay which alternates between memoir, research and biography.

Starting off like a chapter in “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” Colt’s book offers nostalgic anecdotal memories of growing up in New England as the middle child among three brothers.

George’s older brother, Harry, was his hero, while his younger brother, Ned, was his uncooperative slave. His youngest brother, Mark, was the baby in the family — so much younger that he grew up like an only child.

The Colt brothers from left to right: Harry, Ned, Mark & George

The Colt brothers from left to right: Harry, Ned, Mark & George

Much like the Marx brothers, known by their stage names and personas (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo), the Colt boys found themselves confined to their respective roles as hero, troublemaker and damsel in distress.

But, as George explains, their vast differences may have developed as each tried to be his own person while vying for their mother’s love (According to a study by sociologist Katherine Conger, the majority of parents do have a favorite child).

George stood out for his sesquipedalian and loquacious tendencies. At times, the book reads like a dictionary and George is still the showy kid, trying to dazzle you with his extensive vocabulary — pachysandra, erysipelas, fontanel, picaresque and octogenarian are just a sampling.

He talks and talks and talks, sometimes without pausing for breath (or including transitions and paragraph breaks). This can be confusing as he rapidly fires one case study after another — his paragraphs taking up the whole page.

Despite the syntax, the stories of brotherhood are as engaging as how often one brother’s success is catapulted by the other. The rivalry and competition between older brother Dr. John Kellogg and younger brother Will Kellogg revolutionized breakfast food. The quiet nurturing and encouragement of art dealer Theo Van Gogh financed Vincent’s “Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” “The Potato Eaters” and “The Mulberry Tree.” The death of schoolteacher John Thoreau revitalized Henry David, inspiring “A Week” and “Walden.” And the need for greatness surpassing both his father and brother’s Shakespearean fame may have led John Wilkes Booth to shoot President Abraham Lincoln.

George skillfully memorializes the tales of his role models (including these legendary brothers and his own), blending biography with memoir, Bibles stories with pop culture and history with the present. All the while, his lens is like a mirror from which we can see our own favorite brothers reflected back.


Brothers+by+George+Howe+Colt“Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History”
By George Howe Colt
480 pp. Scribner. $30 U.S./ $34.99 Can.


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