There were four young boys in the family of George Howe Colt, growing up.
That made for some rather – well, some lively moments.
Any parent of boys is going to know exactly what that means.
“Males just tend to work things out physically,” said Colt, who today lives in a small community in Massachusetts with his wife and kids.
“Then you get over it, and forget about it.”
Now, in “Brothers” – a book about the sibling relationship that is written about males but will speak to women readers too – Colt weaves his own personal narrative of living with three brothers into a story of brotherly interactions over the decades. The book’s subtitle: “On His Brothers and Brothers in History.”
The book covers many sets of brothers – ranging from the Marx brothers, Kennedys and Bushes to the Coleridge, Booth and Thoreau brothers.
Colt’s book is the selection of The Buffalo News Book Club for November – perfect timing, since it’s a month in which many people see siblings and other relatives for Thanksgiving.
So you can thank us later if this book helps, shall we say, explain things a bit.
After all, many of the relationships between boys and men in Colt’s book are contentious and competitive. And also, paradoxically, loving and supportive.
But, Colt said, that complexity comes with the territory.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there is a lot of conflict,” he said. “But, at this point, my own relationship with my brothers is such an asset … my brothers really are my best friends now.”
Colt spoke with the Book Club about his book, his writing life – and what it’s like to know the subject of brotherhood so deeply.
Colt mentioned, during a phone call from his home in the small town in Massachusetts where he lives with his wife, writer Anne Fadiman, that he has never been to Buffalo, though part of his family had lived in the Rochester area at one point.
“But Buffalo I’ve always been interested in,” Colt said.
Colt said that he and his wife, who have two children, moved to the countryside from New York more than a decade ago. “We have loved it here,” he said.
During the conversation, Colt was interrupted at times by the barking of the family dog, a miniature dachshund named Typo.
As part of his research for the book on brothers, Colt said, he read some 250 or more biographies.
He said he started by examining the life of Henry David Thoreau – who had an older brother, John, who died in 1842 at age 26 after a household accident left him with lockjaw, or tetanus.
John Thoreau’s death, which came within two weeks of his minor scrape, is described in detail in Colt’s book. It forever changed Henry David, who nursed his dying brother, Colt writes in his book.
“I had no idea that Thoreau had a brother,” said Colt. “I had no idea that he died. And that he had a huge effect on who Thoreau was.”
“Brothers” interweaves chapters on historical figures – the Thoreaus are one pair of many – with sections devoted to the Colt family, narrating how the four brothers grew up in various places on the East Coast, as their father and mother moved around with job changes, during the 1950s and after.
In Colt’s family, as “Brothers” relates, the eldest was Harry, then George, Ned and Mark.
The boys had different personalities. In the book, Colt writes of how he made efforts to be gallant and good. As the author writes of his childhood: “I knew that things would go more smoothly if we behaved, and it was important to me that things go smoothly.”
George writes in the book about how he looked up to his older brother Harry; and how he similarly looked down at Ned and Mark, playing with them at times but seeing them as a different class because they were younger.
In a phone interview with The News, Colt said that the scope and variety of “Brothers” was one reason the book was fun to research and write.
It contained both the personal and the historical and cultural.
“I could work on, say, the Thoreaus in the morning and then in the afternoon be working on parts about my brothers and me,” said Colt, whose previous books include “The Big House,” a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2003.
Colt takes up, in his book, an examination of a historical group of brothers that every reader will know at least one of: the Booths.
John Wilkes Booth had a complex relationship with his older brother, Edwin, a stage dramatist who was famous around the country and critically acclaimed for his acting.
There was a third Booth brother, Junius, older than both Edwin and John Wilkes, who also worked in the theater.
The three brothers didn’t see as much of each other as you might imagine – but they did exert powerful influences on one another.
“Given the nomadic nature of an actor’s life,” Colt writes in the book, “there were rarely more than two Booth brothers in the same place at the same time.”
Yet, Colt writes, there were problems among the three Booth brothers – particularly John Wilkes and Edwin. In the book, Colt argues that birth order may have factored into Edwin’s becoming an accomplished actor – and John Wilkes growing into a spoiled man, “encouraged to believe that greatness was his birthright.”
That’s because Edwin had a broader and more widening childhood and young adulthood, traveling with his father, Colt writes, while John was largely kept at home.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Colt speculates, in the book, that if John Wilkes had been born before Edwin, it might have changed the course of that part of the nation’s history.
Colt said he realized as he worked on the book that brotherhood may have been much less dissected and discussed than the bond between sisters.
“Sisters are more likely to talk about these things and write about these things,” he said.
But Colt said that he has heard from many brothers with fractured families.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, brothers, who have stopped speaking to each other,” he said.
Some sibling pairs and groups analyzed in the book explore that phenomenon.
The Kelloggs, for instance, get a lengthy treatment, in which Colt describes the ways in which the two strikingly different brothers – John and Will Kellogg – battled each other for decades in both business (the health and sanitarium field, as well as cereal and health foods) and in their personal lives.
“The Kelloggs, they were an example of sibling rivalry,” said Colt.
Other sets of brothers discussed in the book include the van Gogh brothers, Vincent and Theo, and the Marx brothers – Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo.
“The Marx brothers are fascinating,” Colt said.
He said, however, that writing about the Marx brothers, as with the Kelloggs, wasn’t as enjoyable as writing about other sets of brothers included in the book.
The personalities could be unpleasant to focus on for any length of time, he said.
“You could just feel the stress and tension of trying to live up to those roles.”
“Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History”
by George Howe Colt
$30, 465 pages
George Howe Colt has signed a few copies of his new book, “Brothers,” to be given away to readers of The Buffalo
News Book Club. To be considered to receive a book, write to the Book Club at: The Buffalo News Book Club, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.