In her early 30s, journalist Bishop accidentally discovered she had a half brother she had never known about, so she tracked him down to the barbershop where he worked in a small town in Virginia.
Over the years until his death from complications of a hormonal disorder, the author got to know Ronnie. Ten years older than her, he had been born before her mother, Adria, married her father. The teenage Adria spent a year with Ronnie at a home for unwed mothers. When she couldn't care for him as she worked as domestic help, he was placed in foster care. By the time Bishop was born, her parents were working on a large estate, and the troubled Ronnie was with them. Adria told everyone, including her daughter, that the boy was Adria's cousin and warned him, “Don't you ever call me Mama.” The narrative moves fluidly, and the author backtracks as she provides the details of her research into her family history and recounts her increasingly frustrating meetings with Ronnie, who dwelled on the harm that had been done to him and refused to deal with his illness despite many offers of help. For Bishop, the discovery of her brother's existence was—and apparently still remains—a source of guilt. While compassionate, she manages to distance herself occasionally from his suffering, making good use of her well-honed reporter's eye for detail and ability to research and interview. While readers see Adria and Ronnie through Bishop’s eyes, they also get the perspectives of others who know or knew them, most of whom are not as emotionally involved with their lives. Both of the author’s key subjects come across as baffling, complicated individuals, deserving of love and respect despite their flaws, shaped by a society that viewed a mother who had a child out of wedlock as shameful.
A precise and honest depiction of a family wound that has still not entirely healed.