The Brothers K’ by David James Duncan

Introduction

The Brothers K is a compelling story by David James Duncan about a family living in Camas, Washington in an America rapidly approaching the revolutionary 1960s. Though Camas is a small town still settled in the conservativism of the 1950s, the family soon faces the common division of the hippie movement and the fall out of the Vietnam War, losing one of their sons, Irwine, to the draft, only to have him come home institutionalized. The Chance family’s second son Everett, this reader’s personal favorite, experiences a journey that many of his contemporaries went through. Everett’s character is particularly compelling because he experiences a spiritual journey that requires him to reject what he grew up with for what he thinks he wants, then to lose everything and return to what he once knew; this journey is certainly relatable to many people Everett’s age, regardless of the decade they live in. Everett departs from the religion of his family for the ideals of the time, loses faith when his girlfriend leaves him, goes to jail for avoiding the draft, and comes full circle to believe there’s something bigger than him out there.

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Description of the Chance family

The Chance family consists of mother Laura, a conservative Seventh Day Adventists, Hugh a former baseball player, and their children Everett, Irwine, Peter, Kincaid the narrator, and the twins. The religion of their mother is a dominating force in all the children’s lives, and for Everett, it is a force to be reckoned with. In what the author calls the “Psalm Wars”, Everett and his mother encounter a confrontation over Mama’s strict Seventh Day Adventist household. Though most of her children end up abandoning the religious views with which they were raised, Everett’s is the most volatile. Everett and his mother debate angrily over the virtues of religion and eventually, Everett abandons his family’s religion. He sees the innate problems with religion and religious fanaticism that many of his peer groups were fighting against. “In a head-on collision with Fanatics, the real problem is always the same: how can we possibly behave decently toward people so arrogantly ignorant that they believe, first, that they possess Christ’s power to bestow salvation, second, that forcing us to memorize and regurgitate a few of their favorite Bible phrases and attend their church is that salvation, and third, that any discomfort, frustration, anger or disagreement we express in the face of their moronic barrages is due not to their astounding effrontery but our sinfulness?” (Duncan 128).

He feels fully immersed with the progressive thinking of the time and decides that the only necessities and peace, love, and a sense of community. He goes from the tightly knit island that is the Chance family to speaking to crowds about the current state of America. He sees the violence inherent in the Vietnam War like many others did at the time: as a violent, unnecessary tragedy. When the army seeks him out for the draft, he sets his papers on fire and flees to Canada with his beautiful girlfriend, Russian Literature student Natasha. This break from the religious home and parents to being swept up in the counterculture of the 1960s and the hippie era is an archetypal story from the time. Many of the people at the time agreed with Everett when he states that, “…strong families like mine kept fighting for family identity, and strong characters like my brothers and sisters still struggled to come of age in non-farcical ways.

But our lives were being violated, trivialized, and in tens of thousands of cases terminated by the trite machinations of these sickeningly powerful men” (Duncan 352). The people of the time expressed a sentiment that many of us identify today—one of manipulation and that the powers that be were taking advantage of the unknowing masses. Whether we lived in the time or have just read and heard about it, we know that thousands of young adults from the same kind of family as Everett’s experienced the same disillusionment. For Everett, this change means estrangement from his family, especially his mother. The close relationship he had with Mama changes drastically when he abandons the Seventh Day Adventist Church. This divide between Everett and his former life is demonstrated physically with his move to Canada, but the distance between him and what he once knew is already there.

Everett’s story

While living in Canada, Everett gets his girlfriend Natasha pregnant and eventually, she leaves him. This marks another change in Everett because he begins to question what he thinks and believes. This seems similar to the departure he makes after the Psalm Wars, but this change is a much less inspired one. Whereas his joining the anti-war movement and even his move to Canada can be considered a representation of the optimism of the 1960s and the hippie culture, this change is a sad one for Everett, filled with regret and pessimism. This can be seen as a loss of religion to an even further extent than the results of the Psalm Wars because he loses his religion of love and understanding, and his world becomes much darker and senseless.

In a sense, this is a similar loss to the one that Papa Hugh endures before the book opens. We know that due to some injury Hugh had stopped playing baseball, the game he loved so much. But more than losing the ability, he lost the heart, letting himself fall so far down and making the threat that an injury posed to his playing a reality. This tragedy is mirrored in Everett’s fall from grace after Natasha leaves him. Both Papa and Everett give up on what they had once believed in so much. Though Papa calls the idea of getting back in the game a “fairytale comeback” stating that, “All I’m ever gonna do out here is toss the pitcher’s equivalent of harelip prayers” (Duncan 113), he is eventually encouraged, especially by his son Kincaid, to take up his old hobby. In this way, we sense that Everett’s luck will turn around eventually and that his forlorn-ness and dejected feeling are only temporary—another step in his journey.

Things do change for Everett again, but like most characters in the middle of their journey, things have to get worse before they get better. When the family is called together to come to the aid of their institutionalized son Irwin, Everett leaves Canada and crosses the border back into the United States of America, whereupon arriving he is arrested for having dodged the draft and put in jail. While he is in jail he receives a letter from the girlfriend who left him, Natasha. She says that she has been thinking of him, misses him, and wants him back. This scene marks the third change in Everett’s character. He begins again to question his existence and the meaning of life, but this time he opens his mind up to the idea of a higher power, calling it “You” instead of God. This change seems, in a sense, to be Everett’s way of coming full circle. He begins as a member of a religiously observant family, strays, and ultimately comes back to a sense of spirituality. However, Everett is not truly back where he started. He is changed, and for the better.

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Though he has found his spirituality, he is not a Seventh Day Adventist like his mother and like he and his siblings were growing up. This is a new state of religion for Everett, one of his choosing. Unlike the sixties religion that carried him away from home, this new spirituality and acknowledgment of a higher power humble him. Through the idealism of the movement, he comes to realize that reality is not supported by the “all we need is love” concept, that bad things happen and he needs the faith to get through them, not run away from them. He has changed for the better because he becomes reacquainted with his family without having to regress and readopt their beliefs. Instead, he gains the insight that spirituality gives him, without blindly following but with clarity, peace, and understanding. By joining his family to retrieve his brother, Everett shows us that though he has strayed far from home, he still feels bonded to his family. Unlike before, where he was simply a member of the family and religion because that is how he was raised, now he has chosen to be with them and to start his own family because he feels that is what’s right, and his experience, as well as the understanding that the experience provided him has made him a better, more capable man. He has grown past the free love religion of the 1960s that tended to have the same problems as any other religion and found a sense of a higher power.

Conclusion

All of the children of the Chance family seem to find their way back in the end. Some, like Irwin, return to the Seventh Day Adventist faith of Mama without having strayed as far as Everett. But the lesson Duncan seems to want to leave us with is that through the tumultuous times of the 1960s many concepts of spirituality, religion, meaning, and community rose and fell and that what survived was a strong hope for peace and strength of family. Through this and every decade we see that the strongest institution to survive is that of the family structure; by the end of the story, Everett may not have embraced the religion of his mother, but he shows his loyalty to his family and the belief in the strength of the family as he joins them to help his brother. The Chance family represents the power of familial love as it weathers the turbulent storm of change that is natural in the course of a family, regardless of the era, and Everett represents the forward-thinking movement of the time that challenged these bonds though it was ultimately based on love itself. Through the trials and tribulations of extreme social revolution, Everett’s story leaves us with the singular admiration of the true strength of family, and that even when strained these bonds still hold.

Reference

Duncan, David James. The Brothers K. (1993). Bantam Books: New York City. 736 Pages.

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