Seventeen-year-old Levi Katznelson doesn't really know his older brother, Boaz, and he sure doesn't understand him. Three years ago, when he graduated from high school, Boaz decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. Since then, he's been fighting overseas, growing increasingly withdrawn and distant each time he comes back to visit his family in suburban Boston. Now Boaz is back to stay, but Levi is not sure how he feels about that, or about his brother, or even about the war in which Boaz fought: "I'd say a prayer of thanks, if I were that sort of person, that my brother is returning from this war I don't believe in. This war I can't understand. This war for which nobody should have given up so much, and hurt so many people, and worried his mother down to a sack of bones."
Boaz is hailed by the entire town as a returning hero, of course, especially since he's unusual --- the kind of handsome, charismatic, successful guy from a middle-class background in a prosperous town who could have done anything after high school but chose to join the military instead. As Boaz's ex-girlfriend Christina said when he enlisted, "That's not what people like us do… People who have other opportunities. Who get into Ivy League schools. Who believe in…peace and diplomacy over bullying." Boaz might be both exceptional and heroic to outsiders, but Levi's relationship with him is hardly hero-worship. Although Levi looked up to Boaz, he remembers as many moments of disappointment and disillusion as of admiration and idolization.
Now that Boaz is back home, Levi's conflicting feelings grow ever harder to ignore. Can't Boaz see how much he hurt their mother when he failed to write letters from overseas? Can't he see how angry it makes their father when Boaz hides himself away for days and refuses to interact with the rest of the family during Shabbat dinner? Can't he tell how confused and lonely Levi is, how helpless Levi feels when Boaz shuts him out, when Boaz screams alone in his room at night and no one but Levi can hear? Desperate for answers, Levi starts snooping into Boaz's Web browsing history and spying on the cryptic notes and maps he has hung around his room. When Boaz abruptly leaves on a mysterious hiking journey, Levi is pretty sure he knows where Boaz has gone. He just doesn't know why.
Dana Reinhardt's new book is simultaneously a road trip novel (loosely defined, since so much of the traveling happens on foot), a novel of social commentary, and a love story of sorts. Most importantly, however, it's a story about how one son's decision fundamentally changes not only his own life but the lives of his entire family, often in ways unforeseeable and unexpected. In the course of this one summer, this single life-altering journey, Levi's impression and understanding of his brother change even more than it had when Boaz enlisted in the first place. What's more, Levi's own self-image matures with each stage of his literal and figurative journey, as he begins to define what sort of man he himself wants to become.
In THE THINGS A BROTHER KNOWS, Reinhardt cleverly and powerfully dispels many of the pre-conceptions her readers might have about soldiers, veterans, and war itself. Like Levi and the rest of his community, many may feel that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are irrelevant, distant, things that happen to other people's brothers but not to the sons of privileged families from well-off suburbs. By the time they finish the book, however, they will almost certainly feel more connected to the experience of war and, perhaps just as critically, to the soldiers who fought, and continue to fight, for them.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 14, 2010