Jeanine Cummins comin’ to Otto’s

Best-selling author, Jeanine Cummins will hold a book signing Friday during First Friday at Otto Bookstore, 107 W. Fourth St.

Cummins has written and published three books. Her first book, “A Rip in Heaven, a Memoir of Murder and its Aftermath,” is a memoir of her family’s horrific experience when her two cousins were murdered and her brother was accused of the crime.

It was a family get-together and the Cummins family had driven to St. Louis, Mo., from their home in Washington, D.C., to spend some time with their cousins and their parents. Cummins, or “Tink,” as her family called her, had a special love for her two cousins, Robin and Julie Kerry.

Late on the evening of April 4, 1991, her 19-year-old brother Tom and his two cousins snuck out of the house to go for a walk and “catch up.” They chose to head for an old bridge across the Mississippi where Julie had spray-painted a poem she had written. She wanted to show it to Tom.

When they saw four young men on the bridge, they thought “party” but it was not the kind of party they expected. Three of the men assaulted the girls and then threw them over the side of the bridge. The raging river was 50 feet below. Tom was forced to follow them.

After an hour of sinking and swimming, Tom managed to climb up a steep and muddy bank to shore. He had lost his cousins but he still hoped searchers could find them. He flagged a trucker and begged for help. He wanted the police to send out a rescue team, but instead, was arrested for murder.

The author tells the story like a terrible suspense novel, fleshing out the characters to show the beauty of the victims and the depravity of their four attackers.

She bounces back in her narrative from the action in the police interrogation room to the grandparents’ home where all the family are waiting in tears for news of Tom or Robin or Julie. The overall effect is exhausting and, by the end, exhilarating.

The next book Cummins wrote, a novel called “The Outdoor Boy,” was as far as she could get from murder and police brutality. She focused instead on the “travelers” in Ireland in the ’50s.

Christy, an almost 12-year-old, lives with his father, his father’s parents, his aunt and uncle with his cousin Martin in a gypsy caravan travelling through the small villages of Ireland. They do whatever work they can and then move on. But Christy’s father wants them all to stay in one town until Christy and his cousin Martin can go to school long enough to be prepared for their First Communion.

After his grandfather dies, Christy finds a newspaper clipping with a picture of a woman holding a baby and standing next to a man. When his father sees it, he tells Christy to burn it – “it’s a picture of your mother,” his father told him.

Christy’s always been told his mother died giving birth to him for which he’s carried a load of guilt. He wonders, could the baby be an older sibling? And who is the man? With the help of a bookshop owner, he finds the date of the picture and the town where his mother must have lived.

In crafting the novel’s characters and setting, Cummins portrays the freedom in the travelling life and the near pain of living under a roof. She shows the complexity of a parent’s love when partnered with the vastly different life choices. It’s beautifully written with almost a lyric quality to it.

And finally, in her next book, “Crooked Branch,” the author uses a modern-day setting, partnering it with the story of an ancestor’s ordeal in 1846 Ireland during the famine.

Majella has left her job and her home in Manhattan, moving into the home her parents vacated when they retired to Florida. She has no extended family and no friends to help her with what she sees as the hardest job in the world – raising a colicky baby. When she finds an ancestor’s diary in the attic and she reads the author’s confession to a killing, she’s sure she’s got the same genetic make-up that might result in her killing her baby.

In alternate chapters, Majella struggles with her demons and her ancestor, Ginny Doyle, struggles with hers. Playing a part in the final understanding of her ancestor, Majella listens to a recording made in the ’30s by the New York Public Library for its Folklore Project in which Ginny’s son, then in his 90s, recorded the life of his mother.

The ordeals of her characters followed by the breakthroughs in understanding and acceptance leave the reader with a sense of victory. All three come highly recommended by Otto’s staff (and a lot of other critics).