Autobiography of My Dead Brother
is a 2005 young adult novel by American writer Walter Dean Myers. Set in Harlem, New York, the novel follows Jesse Givens, a teenager with artistic ambitions, as his best friend, Rise, succumbs to the lure of gang culture. Autobiography of My Dead Brother
, based on Myers’s own youthful experience of gang violence on the streets of Harlem, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award (YA division). Myers, a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction books for young people, was awarded the Margaret Edwards Award, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Coretta Scott King Award (five times) before his death in 2014.
The novel opens at the funeral of Bobby Green, an African-American teenager killed in a drive-by shooting. The pastor’s eulogy makes it clear that Bobby’s death is not the first of its kind in this neighborhood. The mourners include Bobby’s friends Jesse, Rise, and C.J. (who is playing the organ). While Jesse and C.J. are horrified by the way Bobby died, Rise’s opinion is that the dead boy “went out like a man.”
The next night, Jesse, Rise, and C.J. are at a meeting of the Counts, a social club for teenage boys in the neighborhood. The Counts are not a gang: they spend their time organizing local social events, like dances. However, one of the oldest members of the Counts, Mason, has just been arrested for robbing a bodega. He wants the other members to intimidate the main witness in his case. The Counts are split. Rise is one of the members in favor of doing what Mason asks. C.J. is against. Jesse doesn’t say what he thinks. Unable to reach a decision, the Counts table the motion.
When Mason is sent to jail, Rise puts himself forward as the de facto
leader of the Counts. At the same time, he is beginning to behave strangely. He is withdrawn, preoccupied, and harder to get along with.
Jesse is a talented artist. Rise admires Jesse’s talent, feeling that he has none of his own. One day, Rise asks Jesse to write an illustrated book about Rise’s life, which he calls his “autobiography.” Jesse finds the request a little alarming, but he accepts, hoping that if he can do a good enough job, it will persuade
Rise to become himself again. Sketches from Jesse’s book (drawn by Myers’s brother Christopher) are interspersed throughout the main narrative.
From Jesse’s “autobiography” of Rise, we learn that the two boys grew up together. While Jesse’s parents worked, Rise’s grandmother babysat him and Rise together. Neither of them had any siblings, so when they learned about “blood brothers” from an old movie, Jesse and Rise cut themselves and swore blood-brotherhood to each other.
The bodega that Mason robbed is firebombed. No one knows who is responsible, but Rise doesn’t have a convincing alibi. It gradually becomes clear that Rise has been drawn into the local drugs trade. Jesse is upset: he and Rise always swore that they would not get involved with gangs.
Rise enlists the Counts to provide muscle. Jesse and C.J. don’t want to be involved in criminal activity, but the Counts are their friends, so they continue to hang out on the margins of Rise’s gang.
Jesse works even harder on his book. He takes refuge in his talent, but the project gets harder and harder as he begins to see that he no longer knows who Rise is. Soon he is spending more time with C.J.—who is similarly taking refuge in his musical ability—than with Rise.
The local gang, the Diablos, aren’t too happy about a new dealer muscling in on their turf, and as the conflict between the Counts and the Diablos escalates, Rise’s behavior becomes more frightening and unpredictable. Meanwhile, Jesse’s parents begin to worry that Jesse is being dragged into gang life.
Rise calls a meeting between the Counts and the Diablos, to talk about a truce. Jesse and C.J. don’t want to go, but wanting to show their strength, Rise and the other Counts pressure the two boys into going. The Diablos don’t show, so Rise sends everyone home.
Soon afterward, all the Counts, C.J. and Jesse included, are arrested. Jesse learns that while the Counts were at Rise’s meeting, several Diablos were murdered, and the police suspect Rise of ordering the hit. However, the police can’t prove anything and the Counts are released without charge. Jesse’s parents are distraught that he has ended up providing an alibi for a gang killing, and Jesse’s dad hits him.
Rise learns that the Diablos are coming for revenge. He decides to skip town, and on the way, he stops at Jesse’s building to say goodbye. While he is there, he is shot by a Diablo. He dies crying in Jesse’s arms, and the book closes with his funeral.
Exploring the realities of life in American inner cities, Autobiography of My Dead Brother
examines themes of friendship, violence, and inequality.