Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday's Little Known Gem: Michael C. White's A BROTHER'S BLOOD

A Brother's Blood: A Novel by Michael C. White, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York, 1996.  This is a splendid literary mystery and a haunting crime novel but also much more.  It features an anti-war, anti-bureaucratic slant, with beautiful writing and a strong female protagonist.  This was a first novel, and the author has since written several other fine books, but none of them grabbed me like this one. 

Dustjacket: A human hand reaching out between double strands of barbed wire, a blurry human form can be made out beyond, glowing as if in a luminous spotlight or maybe a spiritual being.  Design by Nina Gaskin.

Epigraph: "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."

During the time of the first Gulf War, a German named Wolfgang Kallick comes to Maine in an attempt to learn the obscure details of his brother's death, his brother having died there during World War II.  His brother's letter back home serves as the prologue, and it is a very literate letter, quoting Goethe and ending with the closing lines:  "Sometimes I feel I am little more than a caged animal, a beast prowling back and forth in a pen.  Like Rilke's panther."

Opening lines of Chapter One:  "Saturday morning, early. The road up ahead is quiet and dark.  The headlights slice through the darkness like a sharp filet knife cutting fish.  But what spills out isn't the gleaming entrails of morning but only more darkness.  In the rearview mirror it closes seamlessly together again and goes on forever."

The first few sentences are a metaphor of the theme of the novel, cutting open the past and exhuming the buried crime. In the first paragraph we discover that the narrator is a woman and we get the feel of the strength of her character; we learn that she is not skittish, not prone to the fear of dangers real or imagined. She is aware of dangers around her, bears she can hear, and she smells them too, "a smell as hard as axle grease."

The rest of the first chapter is packed with good things: beautiful language, moody asides, foreshadowing and subtle revelations of character. The narrator is a 61 year old woman (she sounds younger, but 61 is not as old as it used to be).  She runs a roadside cafe that caters to truckers, loggers, hunters, and tourists. We like her immediately.

There is a nice bit about the radio, loneliness, the cover of darkness. "I slam headlong into that darkness, hoping that if I go fast enough I'll shatter it like a piece of smoked glass. And on the other side? Maybe morning."

The glass symbol is reprised later in the chapter, when the red-faced man looks in her car window at her, startling her out of a sleep, "as if I'd fallen asleep during those war years and just woke up."

Sleep is a metaphor, as it is the lack of sleep, she says, "that finally begins to hit me--makes me feel my age like a heavy woolen coat that smells of rain."

And the red-faced man has parallel symbols in "the solemn red face of the alarm clock, waiting for first light." Then later the oil light in her car comes on, "a red demon eye staring back at me." Luckily, she finds a Shell service station open, and there is an interesting exchange with the young cat-eyed man who works there.
Comments on war, oil, the control of government, the lies, the play of masculinity and femininity. And this is all in the first chapter.

The chapter ends with a reflection on Time: "Time seems to have lost its texture, is able to expand or contract, to take on new shapes like a cloud on a windy day."

The panther, cat, wolf, bear and other hunter allusions intrigue me. But all men aren't predators. Leon, for instance, has rabbit eyes.

Back to that wonderfully multi-leveled and understated scene where Libby is driving in the snow and nearly runs out of oil. Her old car has a degenerative ailment, like cancer. She finds the yellow Shell station (not a Gulf station) in the fog and the young blond man comes out to help her in orange overalls. He has nocturnal eyes too, and he works "with the slow fussy movements of a raccoon."

He checks the oil and brings the dipstick back to show her, "pointing it at her the way a matador aims a sword at a bull." But he doesn't want to hurt her, just to warn her and not just about the cancer in her car. He wears the orange overalls of the oil company, but detests the ongoing Gulf War where men are asked to die for oil.

He tells her the story of his father who fought for them in the Viet Nam War and was sprayed with Agent Orange, and got cancer from it. He is angry about this, not so much about the dying as about the lies, "We're just looking for the bastards to tell us the truth."

This thread, the individual vs. the lies of the military-industrial complex, is mocked when Libby mentions that the souvenirs she sells tourists actually come from the Smokey Mountains. "What do they know?"
And the question is reprised again when Libby discusses the newsreel propaganda pictures of goose-stepping blond giants wearing swastikas and jackboots. But it turns out that these German kids look like kids anywhere. "What do we know?"

Know this: this is a little known gem of a mystery novel that looks into the human condition with verve and insight.  As this is a cold weather novel, I prefer the moody windswept cover that adorns the Harper trade paperback edition of the book.  I prefer its easy-to-read print size too.
This is a tag-along to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Book series which is to be found
here, and here.


  1. Excellent book. I read this when it first came out over 10 years ago and still recommend it.

    Your review talks about language so passionately. Reminds me of why I became an English major and studied literature all those many years ago. Very few bloggers I have encountered seem to be this insightful and sensitive about metaphor and language. Maybe I'm not just not reading the right ones!

    However, you don't talk about the most fascinating (and for me educational) part of the book -- the prisoner of war camps in WW2 era America. Shortly after I read this book I found out that my father had served at an army base in Florida that also served as a German prisoner of war camp in the 1940s. No wonder he never talked about his war experiences.

  2. Hello Richard. This week's edition of Friday's Forgotten Books is now up at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. Thanks for participating.