46 pages 1 hour read

Charles M. Blow

Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by the American author Charles M. Blow was published in 2014. The book is a nonfiction memoir of his childhood and early adulthood in the American South. Blow is unflinchingly honest in the details of his own abuse and how he carried that abuse with him for years. Blow is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and an anchor for the Black News Channel. Fire Shut Up in My Bones was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, Shelf Awareness, Buzzfeed, Bookpage, and The Root.

Summary

Fire Shut Up in My Bones opens with an enraged Charles M. Blow. He is a college student speeding home with a loaded gun, intent on killing his cousin Chester for sexually abusing him when he was a boy. Blow then flashes back to his childhood growing up poor in Gibsland, Louisiana. The youngest of five brothers. he is surrounded by a large, extended family: his brothers Nathan, William, Robert, and James; his grandmother Big Mama; her several ex-husbands as well as Jeb, her current husband and the only male adult who lavishes unconditional love on young Charles; his mother Billie, who works hard to hold the family together; and his father Spinner, an ex-musician, construction worker, and gambler who drifts in and out of their lives.

When Blow is five, his mother earns enough money to support the family on her own. She severs ties with Spinner, chasing him into the woods with a loaded pistol. Living with their grandparents, Blow feels isolated, and he withdraws, his only friends his immature Uncle Paul and the older residents of the neighborhood. He craves love and attention, but his mother is too busy or exhausted to meet his emotional needs. When Blow’s older cousin Chester comes to visit, he lays the groundwork for his later abuse by giving Blow the attention he seeks. One night, Chester crawls into Blow’s bed and sexually abuses him, assuring him, “[I]t’s just a game” (66). When Blow refuses repeated attempts, Chester turns angry and emotionally abusive, planting the seeds of self-blame in Blow’s mind, seeds which grow and linger in his psyche for years.

As Blow begins to see himself as different—a boy unlike other boys—he develops survival skills to compensate for the loneliness. He cultivates the ability to charm adults with his cleverness and intellect, though he is placed in remedial classes for a time because his depression affects his grades. He begins to associate with Shane and Lawrence, two flamboyant “punks.” Blow envies their courage but also fears becoming like them. In an apparent hate crime years later, Lawrence is found tied to a bed, murdered. Blow, desperate to escape an identity that confuses and terrifies him, turns to religion for salvation. He attends church services, prays, and agrees to be baptized despite his fear of drowning. For a time, religion pushes away the thoughts of men, but only temporarily.

In seventh grade, Blow attends a new school where his intellectual gifts are finally recognized. His family life stabilizes; his mother begins a new romantic relationship, and his father settles down and tries to atone for his past parental lapses. As Blow matures, he discovers his athletic prowess, eventually becoming the captain of his high school basketball team. He is accepted by Russell and Alphonso, two cool kids, and for the first time he enjoys the spotlight of popularity. He also loses his virginity to Evelyn, a new girl, who becomes pregnant. Blow slowly acclimates to the idea of fatherhood, but he eventually discovers the baby is not his. He is angered by her betrayal—yet another in a life full of them.

As a senior, he attends the international science fair, where he encounters peers as smart or smarter than him. This reality pushes him to excel even more, and at year’s end he graduates valedictorian of his class. Having toured the governor’s mansion on a school trip, Blow sets his sights on a career in politics. He attends the local historically Black college Grambling State University and is elected freshman class president. He also pledges a fraternity and enters the often dark and brutal world of initiation. Pledges are routinely beaten and humiliated, a tactic meant to weed out the weak and unite the rest. While Blow admits that his fellow pledges develop strong bonds with one another, and he prides himself on withstanding the punishment, he ultimately comes to view the hazing ritual as unnecessarily sadistic and counter to its original purpose.

Throughout college, Blow is sexually active with women, including a deep love affair with Greta who eventually chooses another man over him. Heterosexual sex pushes away all thoughts of men, but when Chester calls, all the old trauma resurfaces. Blow is hell-bent on killing him and erasing his pain with a single pull of the trigger. On the drive home, however, he takes the Grambling exit off the interstate, as opposed to the Gibsland exit. This split-second decision changes his life. As he drives past the site of so of his many accomplishments, Blow realizes he is more than his trauma. He has transcended his childhood terrors and transcended Chester’s power over him, and therefore killing his cousin would be counterproductive. He returns home and begins the healing process, starting with confessing his past to his parents.

As Blow concludes the narrative, his career as a journalist thrives. He is the youngest department head in the history of the New York Times, and, while it is not the political career he originally hoped for, journalism allows him to follow his passion: writing. He marries Greta, having reconnected years later, they have two children, and they divorce after seven years. He comes to a clearer understanding of his sexuality, a spectrum on which he shifts back and forth. While he is primarily attracted to women, the more abstract appeal of men never goes away, and he finds peace with that. His mother retires but continues to work in education, and his father becomes a deacon in the local church. One day, he calls Blow, telling him, “You jus’ run across my mind, so I needed to call and check on my boy” (227). Blow cries, his father finally giving him the care and validation he has wanted his entire life.

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Related Titles

By Charles M. Blow