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Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
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Brothers and Keepers (1984)

by John Edgar Wideman

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276463,280 (3.9)21
The author examines his brother's life in comparison to his own and asks himself why they are so different, one a college professor, one sentenced to life imprisonment.
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John Edgar Wideman is black and became an English professor. His 10-year-younger brother, Robby, robbed and murdered someone in 1975 and is in prison for life. The author decided to write Robby's story, including visits to the prison and how it all affected John himself.

I originally liked the author's writing style at start of book (he is apparently normally a fiction writer) – at that point, it was more focused on himself and how Robby's actions affected him. However, I didn't like Robby's story as much (though it seemed like it might have been the more interesting of the stories here) – it was written more in Robby's “voice”, I think, so it may have been the style. But, I wasn't as interested again later with the author trying to figure out Robby and maybe bringing in some philosophical stuff. I did get more interested again in Robby's story later in the book while John was visiting him in jail. I also found interesting the descriptions of the jail and what was happening there. So, a bit of a mixed bag for me for this one. ( )
  LibraryCin | Jun 3, 2015 |
This is the story of John and his brother Robert, aka Robby. Robby was arrested and convicted of murder in the early 1970s and was sentenced to life in prison. John sets out to tell his story and, in doing so, explores the nuances of race and family in the late 20th Century. This is an honorable and moving memoir, one in which John moves fluidly from his own voice to that of Robby, his hip and tough younger brother.

I tried not to read this book through the lens of cool distance and liberal curiosity provided by my white privilege. But I can't shed that privilege. So I tried to listen deeply to the experiences that John shares in this memoir. He unapologetically notes that Black men in the 1970s did not have many options; unemployment was high and racism was alive and kicking. But neither does he acquit his brother for his path, a path lined with women and drugs and, ultimately, with murder. John acknowledges that, though he chose a different path than that chosen by Robby, their anger is the same. The sense of disempowerment, the constant awareness of categorization as a "black man" -- the brothers share this experience fully and absolutely. The line between their lives -- that of a Black man who earned a college degree and taught at the college level, and that of a Black man who committed murder in a drug deal gone bad and ended up imprisoned for life -- that line is viciously thin. If nothing else, this is an acknowledgement and exploration of that perilously thin line.

John and Robert grew up in Pittsburgh in a loving family with limited financial resources. John eloquently captures this theme and distinguishes theirs from families where violence and hatred existed. Poor they might have been, but he honors the love and care that his family provided without "whitewashing" the struggles they experienced. Robert was the youngest son and John compassionately explores the impact of the older siblings' success on young Robby's sense of his options. He wanted to be different; he wanted to forge his own path. Unfortunately, this led to disaster and a life sentence in prison.

Robby's voice is so eloquent in this memoir. The fluid way in which John weaves his own voice with that of his brother is pure literature. At times this memoir reads like a mystery novel, gripping and entertaining, and at other times it reads like a... well, like a memoir.

As a white woman of privilege, trying to describe and effectively endorse this memoir is a challenge. But recommending it is easy. I do so, wholeheartedly and without reservation. ( )
3 vote EBT1002 | Apr 1, 2013 |
Sad but valis insights into prison life & the behaviors that lead to incarceration.
  ammurphy | Oct 13, 2010 |
I could never get into Wideman's fiction, but I think this memoir is fascinating. ( )
  billmcn | Aug 6, 2007 |
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