The Plot: Three years ago, Levi Katznelson’s older brother Boaz surprised his family and friends by announcing that rather than going to college, he was joining the Marines. Boaz has returned from his tour of duty, back from the fighting, back from the war. But is he really back? Boaz spends all his time in his room, communicating more with people online than he does with his family or friends. Levi, seventeen, doesn’t know what to think or do especially because no one wants to say it out loud: that the Boaz who came back is not the same person who left. When Boaz announces his intention to go on a lengthy hiking trip, Levi, concerned about what Boaz isn’t saying, forces himself along on a trip that becomes one of discovery for both brothers.
The Good: The relationship between Levi and Boaz is heartbreaking: before Boaz left, the two brothers were not in an idealized relationship but were typical siblings. It was older brother with his own life, younger brother catching up. As Levi explains at the beginning, “I used to worship him too. All little brothers worship their big brothers, I guess. . . . Your brother’s face is one of the first you ever see. His hands are among the first to touch you. You crawl only to catch him.” Boaz leaving, leaving for the military, shifts the family and family dynamics and Levi has been at home with the altered family ever since.
The Katznelsons are part Israeli. Boaz and Levi’s father, Reuben, is an Israeli who was raised in a kibbutz; his father, Dov, moved to Boston to be near his son’s family after his wife died. This adds both depth to the family – Abba’s interactions with his family are impacted by his own upbringing – and layers to how the family reacts to Boaz’s enlistment. Abba moved with his American wife to a Boston suburb before either boy was born. That the Katznelsons come from a family of military service (father, grandfather, and grandmother all served in the Israeli military) doesn’t change that the parents do not embrace Boaz’s choice. Rather, “Abba and Dov said little that night. It was pretty clear where they both stood. Joining up for a war without a clear mission, when it wasn’t part of the price of citizenship in the country we all called home, wasn’t a choice either of them would have made themselves. And they said this later, each in his own way.” Boaz’s girlfriend Christine says bluntly, “that’s not what people like us do. . . . People who have other opportunities. Who get into Ivy League schools.” Levi’s own discomfort over his brother’s choice is both more personal and prescient about what will come: “It wasn’t so much that I had an opinion about the war, or even any understanding of what Boaz was signing up for. It was more that I couldn’t comprehend a distance so far, a change so big, and I was already feeling the change start to happen right there, right then. That night.”
Boaz is now home, locking himself in his room, as his family tiptoes around him, happy he is back yet afraid to ask any questions, reassuring themselves that he got a clean bill of health (including mental health) before he was discharged. One of Boaz’s secrets turns out to be that he refuses to get in a car. When he announces a plan to hike the Appalachian Trail, his mother especially is overjoyed and throws herself into planning and purchasing mode. Levi, who has been keeping an eye on what Boaz does on the computer, knows that the only maps and plans Boaz has is to walk to Washington, D.C. Levi keeps Boaz’s secret but joins him on the walking trip.
Brothers: the brothers of blood. Levi and Boaz. Brothers: the brotherhood of Marines, Boaz and Loren and Jack. Also the brothers of friends (Levi, Zim, Pearl); the brothers of those who have had similar experiences (Boaz and his grandfather Dov), the brothers of family — the Katznelsons. All these links, all these relationships, and also — what do we know about our brothers and ourselves?
I love the Katznelsons. I want to go to Friday dinner at their house. It’s such a layered family. For example, Levi recalls a card game his grandfather Dov taught him and assumes that Dov also played with Boaz, but Boaz says no. It could be that Boaz doesn’t remember, but I think it shows how grandchildren can have unique relationships with a grandparent and they don’t realize it. Levi doesn’t realize that this card game may have been something Dov shared just with him.
While Boaz walks to D.C., he stays with fellow soldiers and the families of soldiers. On the one hand, it is a practical solution, cheap. On the other, it is also a gift. Boaz, whatever his struggles are, came home. His presence in the homes of his brothers is a silent message to those families, a message of prayer and hope: your son will come home.
The Things a Brother Knows also has humor, some of it supplied by Levi’s two best friends, Zim and Pearl. Pearl breaks up with someone for using the word penultimate wrong. Pearl puts on a two-year-old mix CD she made and quickly stops it, saying “Jesus, I had bad taste at fourteen.”. When Levi prepares for his trip, his best friend Pearl asks him to tell her what he packed. “It’s kind of like porn for girls.” Funny but true, at least for me!