Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Brothers K

I just finished reading a novel by David James Duncan entitled The Brothers K. If I were to do a review of the book I would, among other things, speak of the evocative language the author uses in many chapters. The opening scene in chapter one is particularly good; also the scene outside the pulp mill one foggy morning is incredibly touching and emotional. I might also speak of the unevenness of the writing because there is a whole section in which the author purposely uses poor grammar and weak logic to portray the emotions of some of the brothers (the technique did not really work for me). Overall, the book is very good and the parallels to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, are present but subtle enough to leave the reader wanting to explore the themes to a greater extent. At certain points I found I wanted to read Dostoevsky in one hand and Duncan in the other hand to compare the characters.

Having said that I will not give a complete review of the book, what I would like to do is draw our attention to one section in which the author explores concepts of giving, trust, faith, and salvation. The book has many themes worthy of exploring but one of the more significant is the nature of the spirituality of Laura "Mama" and Hugh "Papa" Chance. Laura Chance is an extremely devoted Seventh Day Adventist Christian who is very severe and legalistic in her faith. In most of her life she speaks her mind in no uncertain terms and says that some in her family are destined for heaven and some are destined for a fiery hell, unless they change their ways and become members of the Adventist Church. At one point she sets up a system of merit and rewards in which the faithful church attendees are cared for with meals, laundry, and cleaning while those in the family who do not attend are left to fend for themselves. There is a reason for her hardness; but we do not get to know the reason until the final scenes of the book. Hugh Chance, on the other hand, is not a religious person; unless one counts his devotion to baseball. Laura "knows" that her baseball pitching, beer drinking, chain-smoking husband is destined for hell. She continues to love her husband, although her actions do not show it, and shows greater tenderness toward him in the months leading up to his death. The following excerpt is taken from a time when Hugh has died of cancer and, against Adventist theology and Laura's wishes, but in compliance with Hugh's demands, his body has been cremated.
He'd left it to Mama to select his container, and she'd chosen – of all things – the same blue ceramic jewelry box in which she used to keep her Sabbath tithes and offerings. It gave me a turn to see it, full of powdered Papa on our dinnertable there. But once my intestines swung back around, it began to feel about perfect. Because what is an offering really? What can human beings actually give to God? What can they give to each other even? And what sorts of receptacles can contain these gifts? Work camps and insane asylums, Indian trains and church pews, bullpens and little blue boxes . . . Who belongs in what? When do they belong there? Who truly gives what to whom? These were questions we were all struggling to answer not in words, but with our lives. And all her life Laura Chance had placed ten percent of all she'd earned in this same blue box before offering it – in full faith that it would be accepted – to her Lord. So now, just as faithfully, she'd placed a hundred percent of her husband in the same box. That was her answer to the questions. And I'm hard put to think of another that would do greater honor to her husband, her Lord or her little blue box.1
As a final "offering," Laura Chance "offered up" Hugh Chance in a blue box trusting that God would know what to do with him. We sense a softening of her fierce legalism and perhaps a willingness to admit that she did not have all of the answers and that God still held some mystery for her. There is much we can learn from the Chance family and I encourage discerning readers to consider the lessons inhabiting this work.


1 Duncan, David James. The Brothers K. New York: Random House Inc., 2005 (originally published in 1992), p. 620, 621.

1 comment:

  1. Brothers K explored a number of different responses to Christianity. Laura Chance's was kind of a stereotypical Christian, the kind of narrow-minded legalist you see caricatured in the movies. Duncan did a good job though of making her a real person. As the passage you quoted shows, she wasn't two-dimensional. And as you hint at, there were external forces that contributed to her approach to faith. So while for most of the book you see her as the bad guy, by the time it's all over, you feel like you ought not to have judged her. That in itself was a good lesson.

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