The struggle between ideals and pragmatism

By  Mark Creedon, Catholic Register Special
  • August 30, 2014

Crimes Against My Brother by David Adams Richards (Doubleday Canada, hardcover, 416 pages, $32.95).

David Adams Richards is a writer who knows the human soul and reveals it to us in dialogue, plot and inner reflection. It’s the author’s extraordinary access to the truth of being human that makes us care about his characters. We know them, and what brings them joy, pain, hope, despair, guilt and peace matters to us.

Richards places his characters in a small town in New Brunswick — a setting that becomes a dynamic persona in the novel. The gossip, cliques and fear of exclusion are all too familiar. Mark Twain wrote, “God made the country, man made the city and the devil made the small town.” Richards illus-trates Twain’s point beautifully. He makes us believe in this town and hate it.

This is a novel about how lives are shaped by what we owe to one another. The main characters, Ian Preston, Evan Young, Harold Drew and Annette Brideau, struggle with who to trust, who to love and what to believe. Their lives are rivers that do not follow a straight line.

Ian, Howard and Evan find themselves alone in the forest and bound together by a common anger directed at the adults in their lives. They improvise a ceremony of brotherhood with blood, making a pact with each other and excluding God. Betrayal and perceived betrayal and lies turn these friends against one another after an accident that tests that bond. We follow these three through their lives as they each find their own way of being faithful or unfaithful to one another. We see the boys become men among a rich cast of characters.

With the innocence of ado-lescence behind them, their lives continue to intersect with each other and the beautiful Annette Brideau in ways that they did not want nor did they predict. They regularly exchange the conflicting roles of victim, villain and hero. They reveal well the struggle of life. They are us and it is easy to identify with them.

Beyond the people and the town, our sympathy extends to the trees of the surrounding forest. They also play a vital part in the story. The forest is a character and a victim in the novel and yet it is also a strong symbol of hope. Richards plays with the struggle between ideals and pragmatism that is familiar to all Canadians.

Crimes Against My Brother is interesting and thought provoking because it is real. It is Richards’ most recent novel and definite-ly worth reading. Through his characters and plot he wrestles with some of the most important themes in life.

The characters play important thematic roles but are quite be-lievable in their own right. The themes themselves are as old as time. Belief and disbelief in God, pacts with men and against men, betrayal, despair, hope, karma, revenge, love, forgiveness and re-demption weave their way through the plot and live in the flesh and blood of the players.

Some characters — Sara Robb, Ethel Robb, Leonard Savoy and Sydney Henderson — join their lives to God consistently. They are persecuted by their peers and betrayed by those who should love them. Still they persist with an un-shakable faith in God and love for their fellow human beings. Lonnie Sullivan prefers evil and does his best to enlist others in his schemes. He is adept at telling people what they want to hear and making selfish requests appear reasonable. He perverts the good in people and turns them to soul-destroy-ing behaviour. He even convinces himself he is acting in the interests of others. Mill manager Wally Bickle is even better at self-de-ception, despite the fact he has betrayed every man and woman who ever worked for him, or loved him, and brought destruction to the forest itself.

Annette Brideau’s son, Liam, is the most complex character in the novel. He loves and cares for the parents who have failed him. He is shown cruelty and hatred by townspeople and then he is cared for and loved. When his life appears stable, his benefactor is tormented by fear and guilt and everything is threatened. Liam’s determination, resourcefulness and loving nature are remark-able yet the meaning of the path he chooses will stimulate many dinner debates in the future.

Crimes Against My Brother is not an easy read. It is not a Walt Disney story but neither is it an Ingmar Bergman tribute to despair. It is real, it is compelling and well worth reading.

(Creedon is the former executive director of Peel-Dufferin Catholic Family Services.) 

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