WEST ORANGE, NJ — Native Charlie Brannick has been collecting stories for most of his life and now, with the publication of his first book, “North River Songs,” finally has published them all together. The collection of prose and poetry tells Brannick’s story of growing up in West Orange and of his journeys before setting out for the California coast. His self-published book, available at Amazon.com, also contains sketches of his childhood home and other West Orange locations.
“I had some thoughts about writing a book for a while,” Brannick said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Sept. 12. “And not going through a publisher made it easier — you can do whatever you want; you can say exactly who you are.”
Brannick started writing both prose and poetry, and eventually edited his pieces into one cohesive story. “North River Songs” begins in prose then continues in poetry, with Brannick telling the story of how he grew up and left West Orange for Vietnam with the Army. Eventually, the book circles back to his return to West Orange and readjustment to civilian life, before detailing his move to California.
“The first chapter is what I imagine what it was like for my mother and father and what it was like in October 1948 in West Orange,” Brannick said, adding that the book ends with a tribute to his mother, who also grew up in West Orange. “I talk about my school and Little League team, and what it was like growing up on Valley Road and Kingsley Street.”
Brannick’s childhood home on Kingsley Street is featured in the book as a sketch. Admitting he is not an artist, Brannick said he used an app to convert photos of his house, Jenkins Park and a local candy store into drawings.
He also described what it was like to grow up down the road from West Orange Mountain High School.
“We used to hang around there; sometimes there would be 40 or 50 kids on that corner,” Brannick said. “We got arrested once because we were just being a nuisance. A lot of those kids did really well for themselves.”
Brannick also included a poem about his time delivering the Chronicle when he was 12 years old, along Mount Pleasant Avenue near the West Orange Public Library. After high school, Brannick shipped out to Vietnam with the Army, and the book picks up at the time of his return to West Orange at age 21.
“It deals with me coming back from Vietnam and picking up from there,” Brannick said. “I read a lot and hung out with friends. I had to readjust. Then I decided to go to college in Boston, and the poetry takes over from there.”
After some time in Boston, Brannick once again returned to West Orange. In 1974, he decided to head west and moved to San Francisco with the goal of attending university to become a school guidance counselor and psychologist; his admittance to Humboldt State University brought him 271 miles north of San Francisco to Eureka, Calif.
“I came to California by myself,” Brannick said. “I thought it was the most beautiful place in the United States, especially at that time. And when you break away at 25 years old, anything is possible. California was the best place to start all over.”
But as the poems in “North River Songs” describe, Brannick didn’t graduate from Humboldt State.
“A lot of people in West Orange don’t know where Humboldt is,” he joked. “And I thought, ‘I can go back to New Jersey after this if I want.’ But then I didn’t finish.”
Brannick decided to stay in Eureka, and remains there now. He started working as a painting contractor, bought an apartment building and eventually met his wife. Working for himself gave the author the time to reflect and gather the stories into what would become his book.
“After a lot of determination I felt like I was getting somewhere,” Brannick said. “I had the time and was in a comfortable place to write about it. When thinking about what are the most important things in my life, I had a lot of poetry, and that was a way I could tell the story. I entered the prose for context and let the poetry carry it forward.”
Brannick considered every detail of the book, down to the fonts that would be used and the kind of paper used for the pages. Now that it’s finally finished, he wants as many people to read it as possible.
“It reveals more of me as you go; it’s about 20,000 words in 19 chapters,” Brannick said. “It sums up my whole experience of the feeling of growing up and it’s a fulfillment of that dream.”
Photos Courtesy of Charlie Brannick
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct a historical error about West Orange Mountain High School.