Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Jonathan Cullen, Author of "The Ranks of Jody Brae"

During the 1970s Boston underwent a process of school desegregation which resulted in "forced busing," where children from white neighborhoods were assigned to schools in neighboring black neighborhoods in order to achieve racial balance across the school system. My earliest memories were of boarding a bus in my safe and middle-class white neighborhood and driving through the blighted areas of Roxbury and Dorchester to my elementary school. On the way we passed run-down houses, boarded-up storefronts and empty lots filled with litter and marked by graffiti.

Later I learned that Roxbury and Dorchester had once been vibrant communities, predominantly Jewish and solidly middle-class. But the 1960s had been a period of tremendous social and economic change in cities across America. During this time Roxbury and Dorchester, like many other places, underwent a rapid transition from white to black. Crime increased, racial tensions flared and ultimately the white middle class fled to the suburbs. In some cities the changeover was gradual but along Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury and Dorchester it happened in just two years.

It is against the background of this volatile period that my novel, The Ranks of Jody Brae, is set. I have always been fascinated by neighborhood change in big cities. When I decided to become an author, I naturally carried this interest into my work. What better place, I asked myself, to set a detective story than along the backstreets and alleyways of an urban slum, a place where cops were reluctant to patrol and where residents lived in fear?

The Ranks of Jody Brae is the story of a Boston cop who was raised in an orphanage and fought in the Korean War. When called to investigate a rash of building fires, he returns to his childhood neighborhood of Roxbury to find a rundown no-man's-land of petty thieves and sidewalk criminals. Since the area is poor, the press and politicians have all but ignored the arson epidemic. Jody Brae's search leads to an aging underworld figure who knows as much about the fires as he does about Brae's own obscure past. What Brae discovers will either liberate or destroy him.

As I wrote the novel, I tried to capture the spirit of the era, the character and characters of a place that no longer exists. I read extensively about the heyday of Jewish Roxbury and Dorchester, as well as about the racial unrest of the 1960s that led to its demise. The result was not a treatise on class warfare or race relations, but rather a dark and emotionally charged story of one detective's fight to come to terms with his own past. Like most novels, the plot is specific. But a strong setting, a deep-rooted sense of time and place, is what gives a story its universal themes. The old adage "write what you know" has served me well, since the things I know intimately are the things which inspire me to write.

Forced busing in Boston was reviled by many, especially the white middle class. But for me it sparked a lifelong fascination with urban neighborhoods, an interest that has informed, enhanced and enriched my writing in ways that no other experience could have.

Jonathan Cullen grew up in Boston and attended public schools. After a brief career as a bicycle messenger, he attended Boston College and graduated with a B.A. in English Literature (1995). During his twenties, he wrote two unpublished novels, taught high-school in Ireland, lived in Mexico, worked as a prison librarian and spent a month in Kenya, Africa before finally settling down three blocks from where he grew up. He currently lives in Boston (West Roxbury) with his wife Heidi and three year-old daughter Maeve. The Ranks of Jody Brae is his first novel.


Backstories, where authors share the secrets, the truths, or just the illogical moments that sparked their fiction, come to us courtesy of author M.J. Rose and the Open Letters Monthly blog Like Fire.


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Wednesday June 22nd 2011, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Cindy S. (Beulah, MI)
Boston became my home starting in the early 1970s prior to desegregation policies of the mid-1970s. I tended to looked at busing in Boston from the point of view of Black children being pelted with rocks as they were being buses to hostile white schools whereas this story and the author's depiction is the vice versa. The author has an absence of malice. While I am rather curious about the novel, I get a little queasy reading the description of busing without mentioning the story side of African American students.

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