Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Monday, May 9, 2011

Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows

In Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, Boaz returns to his family’s home outside of Boston after three years in the military, including a long tour in Iraq. The community regards him a hero. But his younger brother Levi, now 17, doesn’t know what to think or feel about him. Levi has never felt close to his brother, and Boaz’s decision to join the Marines when he graduated from high school further separates them. Most of Levi’s family is opposed to the war. Levi isn't all that interested in the politics of it; he’s just mad at his brother for leaving. For ditching out on Christina, his girlfriend. For torturing their poor mother. For delaying—perhaps forfeiting—the promising future he had (and all of the hopes and dreams his parents had for him to go to a great college and have a long and prosperous career). And for bringing three years of worry to their home.

So when Boaz gets back, Levi expects—or at least hopes—things will be better.  Hopes to have his brother back. Hopes life will return to normal for the family, like it was before Boaz left. And I think maybe he hopes to feel connected to his brother (even if he doesn’t know it right away).
The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
Wendy Lamb Books, 2010

But Boaz has changed.  Other than to emerge for meals, he spends all hours sequestered in his room. He won’t ride in any kind of car, truck, or bus—he even walked home from the airport. And Levi can hear him screaming softly (yes, softly) from his room in the middle of the night. But when Boaz’s computer breaks down and he borrows Levi’s laptop, Levi is able to snoop through his brother's internet doings and learn Boaz has been frequenting military message boards and blogs, watching videos, and downloading maps.

So when Boaz announces to the family that he plans to hike the Appalachian Trail—alone—Levi knows it’s a lie. The maps Boaz downloaded were not of the Appalachian Trail. So he’s even more mad at Boaz. For lying. For delaying the return to normalcy. For putting his family through hell again.

For leaving part of himself in Iraq.

After Boaz departs, Levi tracks him down using the little evidence he left behind. At first Levi tries to get him to come home, to give up whatever crazy mission he’s on and get started on his recovery. But Boaz won't budge, and the best Levi can do is join him on the hike (which Boaz reluctantly agrees to). Along the way, Levi begins to realize that maybe this long walk is just the opportunity he’s been waiting for—a chance to get to know his brother.

The Things a Brother Knows is pitch-perfectly narrated by Levi. It's often funny. Always interesting. Brutally honest. It's a fascinating examination of the effects of war on the family members of those serving on active duty. Levi is angry at his brother for the way he's been acting—and for leaving in the first place—but he's plagued by guilt for having those feelings.

And what's most remarkable about this novel, I think, is the hashing out of the relationship between the estranged brothers. I’m convinced that the handling of emotional relationships between male characters is integral to how boys—especially reluctant male readers—receive literature (and whether or not they will be lifelong readers). So convinced, in fact, that I wrote a critical thesis on the subject, focusing on the role of emotional conversations between boys. You see, if a novel is completely devoid of emotionality, it will not resonate with any reader. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a pleasant read, but it certainly wouldn’t leave a lasting impression, wouldn’t make you want to go out and read another book. Or another. Or another after that. But if a story is overtly emotional (or inappropriately emotional), readers—especially male readers—will likely dismiss it as unrealistic and shy away from the book altogether. But Reinhardt, in this novel, provides the perfect example of how to handle such crucial conversations.

An example: With one sentence, Reinhardt has Levi (likely unbeknownst to him) set the stage for an important talk with his brother: “One of the things about walking I always appreciated is the way you don’t have to look someone in the eye.”  By hiking together, Levi and Boaz are moving, being active. The physicality of it tempers the emotional acuteness that might keep either or both from talking. They loosen up, let their guards down. There’s something about activity that makes many young men feel okay to talk—on the basketball court, during a run, while wrestling or fighting.  Plus, as Levi notes, they don’t have to look at each other. You know that saying, “the eyes are the window to the soul?” Well, if you don’t feel like you’re peering into someone’s soul (or worse—someone’s peering into yours), you might be willing to say some personal things without feeling too vulnerable (or feeling you seem to vulnerable).

The novel sneaks up on you. Levi’s narration is quick, funny, and spirited, and the characters (especially Levi’s friends Pearl and Zim and his grandfather Dov) are quirky and amusing. But all of that serves as a balance to the levity of the situation with Boaz. And when the brothers finally reach the end of their hike—their destination—you feel like you’ve gone the distance with them.

Highly recommended for ages 14-17.