Sunday, January 9, 2011

YA Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows

A moving tribute to family.  A moving tribute to the people who serve in the military.  A moving tribute to being human.  Dana Reinhardt's YA novel The Things a Brother Knows reveals the story of a family waiting for their son and brother to return home from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Boaz does indeed make it physically home early in the novel--and for that his mother, father, brother, and uncle are relieved.  But the son and brother they knew before he was a Marine has not come home.  Even by the end of the novel we are aware that that person has not returned.

PFC Boaz Katznelson stays in his childhood bedroom with the door closed day after day.  He barely speaks when he comes down to eat and then he returns to the privacy of his own room.

And then he leaves their suburban Boston home on foot under the guise of walking the Appalacian Trail so that he could walk to Washington, D.C. alone.  His brother, Levi, suspects something is wrong and musters up the resolve to go after his brother himself to see if he can't bring him home himself.  We understand that the brother he is after is more than just the physical shell who remained alone in a dark bedroom for weeks.

The novel unravels two journeys simeultaneously: Boaz's physical and spiritual journey to Washington, D.C. to take care of something he needs to do for himself, and Levi's similarly physical and spiritual journey to try and understand what his brother needs and how to help him.  Neither heavy nor light, the novel respectfully centers itself around the lives of soldiers returning home...and what that means.  Sometimes walking in the front door to the arms of a loving mother isn't enough.  The novel lays out the sobering fact that soldiers do not come home in one piece whether they have all of their arms and legs and fingers and toes.  There are always pieces a solider may need help putting back together...and for those of us who have not served this is very difficult to understand.

Reinhardt's novel take this very difficult, and very real, circumstance and treats it with the care and respect it warrants.  In the center of the novel Boaz and Levi's mom finally lets loose to her youngest son:
I know there are mothers everywhere, all over this country, all over this world, who would give anything to trade places with me.  Who would love the chance to cry because they are worried about their sons.  There are mothers lost in the wilds of their own grief, who miss the days of worrying.  I know.  I know worrying is far better than grieving.  But, God, help me, sometimes I don't know the difference.  I can't separate the grief from the worry.
We worry along with her...along with all of them.  The Katznelson family is portrayed so well and Boaz's plight and condition is so real that the reader can do nothing but care.  You know that Boaz is a fictional character in a book, yet you also know that there are Boazs out there.  You worry along with Levi on his journey.  You never let their mother and father out of your head because you know they don't know what is going on as you travel across several states (by foot) with Levi and Boaz.  You meet other military families along the way--families with sons and daughters still serving in a foreign land and they are only too happy to welcome a Marine into their home for a night of rest and food.

And you finish the novel and know that Boaz is indeed closer to home, but you will end up asking yourself if he ever truly gets home...if any of them every truly get home.

This YA novel is going onto my desk at school for my students to share in..  It is a great novel which brings a side of war young people rarely learn about or speak about in my experience.  Formally, we cover the American Civil War, World War I, and a part of World War II when we read and discuss The Diary of Anne Frank.  For young Americans, war is something which so often happens over there or on an LCD screen.  Here in America, it is something we find on television, graphic video games, textbooks, and the movies.  This age-appropriate novel brings a much needed human element and balance to the lexicon of war. 

Well done, Dana.

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