Stories about brothers make Barry Moser weep. He yearns for a fraternal closeness that never existed between himself and Tom, his older brother. In We Were Brothers, a memoir shrouded in wistful melancholia, Moser recalls his childhood in Tennessee and his “heavy ladened and knotty” relationship with his brother.
Barry and Tom grew up on a country road in Chattanooga, surrounded by family, all of whom are now dead. They were born to be racists, or so Barry believes today. Relationships with black folk were complicated in the Jim Crow South. But soon—as the 1950s gave way to the ’60s—Barry began to see race and the South differently from his older brother. He eventually relocated to New England and became an acclaimed illustrator—of works ranging from Moby-Dick to the King James Bible—while Tom raised his family in the South.
Of course, the pair did not see eye to eye politically. They did not even speak for years. But with the sweetness and richness that only comes when remembering something nearly lost, Barry recreates slices of their Southern childhood. He recalls drawings they made as children, riding the school bus together, attending military school, hunting pigeons, brawling in their living room and debating ideas. Though Tom comes off as a bully in many of Barry’s childhood memories, a series of letters the pair exchanged late in life reveal Tom to be deeply sensitive and loving, and more softhearted than his younger brother often perceived. The inclusion of Tom’s voice through the full quotation of one long letter creates in the reader the same sort of hollowed-out, raw feeling that Barry describes in the book’s prologue.
We Were Brothers is a beautifully honest book about two real brothers—full, complicated people—who, though they shared a childhood and loved each other as best they could, never managed to repair the cracks in their fragile relationship.