David James Duncan

"The Brothers K"

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman AUG 26, 2006)

For a moment I say nothing, fearing I’ll sob or choke…. if I speak.  But then words well right up… I’m helpless to stop them: “I KNOW you hate the mill,” I tell him, and tears come the instant I speak.  “I KNOW that you love baseball, and you aren’t doing what you want.  But at least Vera fights”… I lean against the door, gasping for air and strength to finish.  “All I want is for YOU to fight, Papa.  To fight and stay alive inside!  No matter what.”

Like the author’s widely acclaimed first novel, The River Why, this novel deserves an anniversary edition.  For those who have read it, it is deeply cherished, often re-read and never forgotten.  For those who have not yet read it, it is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

This is an epic story (a seemingly formidable but ultimately very satisfying 645 pages) told largely by the youngest son, Kincade, about a strange and exuberant household with two gods: fundamentalist Christianity and baseball. Even readers who have little or no interest will learn a lot and come to care about both. But it is not really a story about either one.  Instead it is an amazing kaleidoscope of the times (especially the Viet Nam era of the 1960’s), the sprawling dynamics of a brave and quirky family, baseball, humor and pathos with a startlingly comprehensive look at them all.

Hugh Chance was on his way to becoming a professional baseball pitcher when the Korean War interrupted his career.  Coming home to Camas, Washington where his large family had already been started, he took a temporary job in the local paper mill when an accident crushed his thumb as well as the plans he had for the rest of his life.

The Chance family has six children: Everett, who ultimately becomes a draft-dodger; Peter, an intellectual who becomes a philosopher; Irwin, the only brother to sincerely keep the 7th Day Adventist faith of their mother; Kincade, the youngest son and narrator of this story; and finally the twin girls, Freddy and Bet.

After the accident, Hugh’s spirit is as dead as thumb, until nine-year-old Kincade forces him to awaken a small particle of hope.  He gives up smoking, goes running every night after work and finally builds a shed in the back yard and starts trying to practice pitching again.  Eventually he has an operation that replaces part of his crushed thumb with his big toe (thus his later nickname “Papa Toe”).  Through a long and painful struggle, he eventually makes it part way back into the world of baseball and ultimately becomes a pitching coach.

The children’s coming-of-age struggles and stories are a highly entertaining read, but underneath this complex and intimate portrait, there is a deeper meaning to life growing up in this era and in this family.  It is as difficult to watch the almost heroic struggles of Hugh Chance, as it is to understand the severe sternness of Laura Chance’s adherence to her fundamentalist religion, against which three of the boys rebel.  The different pulls that they each exert on their family is portrayed in charmingly told - often hysterically funny - examples of the children’s dawning understanding of these poles in their lives, as they grow up and become very different people.

Through the turbulent times of the 1960’s, Everett becomes a political radical in college and eventually drops out and dodges the draft by fleeing to Canada.  Irwin, a sincere and devout 7th Day Adventist is the only one in the family that is genuinely entitled to a deferral as a conscientious objector, but unfortunately, gets drafted and sent to Viet Nam.  He comes home a broken man and is being held in an Army mental hospital receiving horrific shock treatments and drug therapy.

As his family rallies to save what is left of Irwin, the unspoken example of both of their parent’s quiet courage has served them well.   Their deep love for each other causes them to each make enormous personal sacrifices and their “rescue operation” is most inspiring, uplifting, and touching.

Many reviewers have commented on the parallels with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and The Brothers K, and there are structural parallels such as the naming of chapters. As Everett points out, however, there is another meaning.  In baseball’s “definition,” K means to strike out. This is a complex story told in a pure, simple, gentle but powerful way.  Although at first it seems to meander, it is actually a well-structured novel.  It is an impressive feat how Duncan has managed to bring the end of this novel to a full circle. 

Don’t bother checking this book out of the library.  Buy it!  You will want to share it and read it again.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 128 reviews

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About the Author:

David James DuncanDavid James Duncan grew up wandering the clear streams and fecund forests of western Oregon.

His first novel, The River Why, was the first work of fiction to be published by the Sirra Club. The River Why ranks thirty-fifth on the San Francisco Chronicle list of The 20th Century's 100 Best Books of the American West. The Brothers K is an American Library Association Best Books Award-winner and a New York Times Notable Book. Both novels won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.

Duncan has read and lectured all over the United States on wilderness, the writing life, the nonmonastic contemplative life, the fly fishing life, and nonreligious literature of faith. His work has appeared in Harper's, Outside, Orion, The Sun, Sierra, Big Sky Journal, Northern Lights, Gray's Sporting Journal, and many other publications.

He lives with his family on a Montana trout stream.

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