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Polaris Magazine
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Book Reviews
The Brothers' Keepers
Author Name: John P addison and Duane Orvik
Subject: Fiction-child abuse and neglect
ISBN: 1453692010 / 9781453692011
Size of Book: 5" x 8"
Book Pages: 316
Price: 11.95
Date Submitted: December 16, 2010
Name Of Reviewer: Jeffrey Ross Name Of Publication: Amazon Create Space December 16, 2010

Reviewed by Jeffrey Ross

Let me assure you—there are no beautiful vampires or wise old hoary-headed wizards in this darkling text.  Even so, plenty of malevolent forces, most undeterred, “slither” through its pages.

The authors clearly demonstrate their knowledge of North Dakotan topography, the agricultural industry, traditional Midwestern ethos, and time period-appropriate political and socio-economic events. Few sermonizing or editorial asides detract from the novel’s ongoing narrative praxis—the boys, neglected from early childhood by a womanizing, wandering father and a dissolute, hard-drinking mother, have never learned to behave within acceptable social norms. Clambering and foraging, always moving, always hungry, always cold, always in mischief, playing with matches, guns,  and perpetually  suffering physical injuries,  they generate legions of  problems for themselves and the community that reaches out to them  with only the most facile of  “supportive” gestures.

Paddison and Orvik are institution “iconoclasts.” The tone, the descriptive context, the atmosphere of TBK is a mixture of Upton Sinclair’s harsh naturalistic descriptive power—and Sherwood Anderson’s detail-rich view of small Midwestern towns. Typical traditional  “helping” institutions exist in TBK—the  apparently happy American family, the local  church  Lady’s Aid Society, the  Lutheran Welfare Society, the Home for Wayward youth, Christian Foster Care Homes—but none seek to make an honest, or morally  sincere, commitment to the well-being of the Lambson children.

Paddison and Orvik, in their fictionalized yet eerily peripatetic account of the North Dakota communities, construct a kind of uncomfortable realism.   The authors effectively illustrate the bureaucratic dilemmas, weaknesses, and tabled-decision making faced by both private and governmental agencies [whose apparent mission is to help children such as the brothers]. The book is filled with constant reports, evaluations, re-evaluations, records reviews, and obtuse explanations ----- filed by agencies, both private and governmental, that have somehow become involved in the Lambson family situation and struggle to make any positive, substantial change in the boys’ lives...

Attorney Orvik’s past experiences working with child abuse cases helps to certify much of the behavioral contexts (both by the Lambson boys AND the agencies who cannot help them).

Yes, Professor Paddison and Barrister Orvik can be literary.  The harsh north wind, harbinger of the high plains winter—is kept just at bay.  Recurring images of fire hint at both danger and purification.  Rich farmland situates a stark stage for the starved lives of the five siblings.

One of my favorite “components” of the text involves the inclusion of numerous letters written from foster families to the Lutheran Welfare Society. These epistles, which comment on the boys’ continued disobedient and  erratic behaviors,  and typically summarize the foster parents’ reasons for wanting the LWS to [quickly]  remove the boys from their domiciles, reveal much about the “helping” communities. The foster parents frequently detail how the boys do not want to work [an apparently-prized expectation of foster children on the farm!] and do not respond well to corporate punishment (beatings, slappings, or other physical disciplinary actions]. Signed with ecumenical phrases such as “Yours in the Faith,” or “Yours in Christian Love”—the letters provide an effective and compelling look into the often  disjunctive lives of those who have “signed on” --under the aegis of a church-related helping agency—to help the less fortunate.

The authors’ accounts of the boys’ forays into junkyards and railways create a nail biting or fatalistic expectation that death or disaster will soon follow [and bad things usually do happen!]. Those boys, always roaming, always fighting, always left to fend for themselves and getting into mischief or trouble—are both characters and symbols. The motion of the novel rolls like a wind- swept golden wheat field—but the reader is never led to believe a fruitful harvest waits.

And it doesn’t. One of the boys, Duane, becomes a moderately successful attorney. At the conclusion of the text (an epilogue sequence taking place in 1977), he has been asked by another attorney to become involved in a child abuse case on the Mandan Reservation. As he reads the file, sees the photos, and imagines the events, he is overcome by memories and feelings he had simply put aside for years. He struggles with the destiny his brothers have faced. Cathartic? Perhaps. Hollywood finale? Not a chance.  Crowds are not cheering, the marching band is quiet, and nobody has become a hero.

One of the most favorable characters in this novel is Miss Clementon, an attractive and career minded young Christian woman who serves as the boys’ collective case worker during the period they are housed in the Lake Charles Receiving Home. During this true high point in the brothers’ lives, just after they had been removed [willingly] from their mother’s care, Miss Clementon introduces them to the concepts and practices of birthdays, holidays, and traditional domestic pastimes. [This section is touching and heartwarming]  Her commitment and perseverance helps the boys flourish—but this time at the loving Home, all too brief, ends [with mixed results but mostly catastrophic consequences]  when the LWS determines it can no longer afford the Lambsons and “farms” them out to the aforementioned foster parents….]

Miss Clementon represents, I think, the best of what the community at large could offer the Lambson Boys.  But she, too, is helpless before the apparently scripted events.  A compassionate Miss Clementon, who witnesses the steady decline of the Lambson situation following their departure from suffers a near crisis in her faith, and eventually resigns her position.

The Lambson situation, a product of nature, nurture, and forces which can be described but not understood, can never be resolved for all involved. The boys cannot be kept together physically or emotionally—the band of brothers is finally separated forever.

In one of the few passages of “journalistic” commentary in the novel, the authors write,

Yet strangely enough, for the society underpinned by rebirth and restoration, the only solution to the issue of the Lambson children somehow always involved further separating and distancing them from each other. Perhaps the unspoken rational was to fragment the brothers into non-existence… to the point of where no one would have to explain, and thus justify, what happened to the youngsters ….

John Paddison once told me—“Literature should ask the important questions.” TBK demonstrates many of the questions about child abuse and neglect have not yet  been answered. The Lambson children’s problems cannot be blamed solely on the economic or intellectual or cultural milieu of pre-WW II America.  Arcane—but identifiable-- forces which damaged their lives continue to negatively affect children today. Paddison and Orvik have written fiction that tackles a large social issue.  In the end, the authors created a progressive-minded literary work that explores an all-too-common still persisting social problem. One further question lingers—how will the Keepers of today guarantee the future well-being of our children?


Other information about the authors and book can be found here.


Name Of Reviewer: Kitty Carlisle Name Of Publication: Polaris Reviews July 15, 2011

The Brothers’ Keepers by John H. Paddison and Charles D. Orvik chronicles the progression of the five Lambson boys through the convolutions of neglect and abuse. The fictional tale reads as a meticulous, almost autobiographical account of a family deconstructed by the Great Depression, alcoholism, and abandonment, as well as a welfare system not well established enough (or even invested enough) to care for five children desperately in need of attention. For the neglectful Cora and Iver Lambson, the births of their sons are unexpected, though the abuse the boys experience ultimately comes to be anticipated by the siblings.

The despair of the Depression and the political events of the Second World War parallel the Lambson family’s travails in this literary novel, offering an astonishingly thorough account of the economic and social climate which pervades every aspect of their subsistence. The harsh climate of 1930s North Dakota aptly mirrors the landscape of their own futile lives and the narrative closely follows the fragmentation of not only the Lambson family, but of each of the five boys.

The same determination the boys show in hanging an old tractor tire from the huge, timeless tree in their front yard, however, clings to them through every beating, every broken bone, every flesh wound they receive. The connotation of the tire suspended from the tree pictured on the front cover of the book is one of lazy summer days playing with friends, lemonade offered by a smiling, loving mother to quench parched lips, and falling exhausted into a soft bed at the end of each active day. Conversely, this deceptive snapshot of the cottonwood tree and its tire swing more closely resembles what is actually missing from the boys’ lives: The stability the tree represents, the carefree summer days, the assumption that children will be loved and fed. Even their shared bed is but a bare mattress covered only by a urine-soaked quilt.

Scavenging through a junkyard for car batteries and hubcaps the way other boys open a toy box to pull out an Erector set or Tinker Toys, the Lambson boys are survivors in the very literal sense of the word. Pilfering food from neighbors in order to fill their unremittingly empty bellies, they feel more of a sense of security from the pot-bellied stove in their dilapidated farmhouse than from either of their parents. They soon learn they can rely only on each other.

Though a few people lend a helping hand to the boys in their childhood, none of the relationships sustain the duration of their lives: The sheriff’s wife; two soldiers who offer a ride to the hungry and weary brothers as they hitchhike to their grandparents’; foster families, the Rykkers and the Goodwins and the Helgeses; and especially the Lutheran Welfare Society (LWS) caseworker assigned to the boys when they are finally taken from their mother.

LWS’ Miss Clarissa Clementson’s hopes for a better future for the boys, whom she calls “her special children”, are thwarted at every turn by the agency recruited to care for the children. The beleaguered social worker eventually becomes disillusioned with and resigns from the career she feels was her “life’s calling”; an analogy for the way everyone ultimately turns its collective back on the boys. Even many of the families with whom the boys are placed as foster children admit to “utilizing agency children to help around the farm” rather than seeing the innocent children as simply needing structure, discipline, and love.

Any definitive triumphs are tempered by the numerous pitfalls as the boys are separated from each other and they each make their way to their individual destinies.

The Brothers’ Keepers begs - no, wrenches from us - the question: Where are the caretakers of the abused, the neglected? And it makes us cry. For “those destined to be the brothers and those doomed to become the keepers.”

Authors Paddison (a retired English professor) and Orvik (a retired attorney) use the obliquely-twisted yet flat landscape of 30’s and 40’s era North Dakota as the backdrop for portraying the systematic de-evolution of a family. TBK painfully illustrates the outcomes of child abuse and child neglect—the five Lambson brothers characterized in the book all suffer physically, psychologically, and spiritually from the life handed to them by several “keepers”—their inadequate parents, the public school system, church and government welfare agencies, foster homes, and, as they unstoppably mature, even their painful and debilitating memories.