The Brothers K is a novel published in 1992, and it tells the story of the Chance family, who live in Camas, Washington. The Chance family consists of father Hugh, mother Laura, brothers Irwin, Everett, Peter and Kincaid, and twin sisters Beatrice and Winifred. The story begins in the early 1950s and follows the family on their adventures and misadventures into the mid-1970s, driven by passions for baseball and for religion.
The title of the book, The Brothers K, is derived from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov. Similar to Dostoevsky’s novel, Duncan’s tale revolves primarily around the four Chance brothers and their experiences growing up. The ‘K’ also serves as a reference to baseball, in which a ‘K’ symbolizes a strikeout.
Hugh Chance, the father, is a former minor league baseball pitcher. His career came to an abrupt end when a mill accident destroyed the thumb of his pitching hand. Papa Chance, as he is affectionately known, now works full time at the pulp mill in order to support his family.
Laura Chance, the mother, is a homemaker and is an extremely devout Seventh Day Adventist. Hugh’s devotion to baseball and Laura’s devotion to her religion frequently leads to arguments and disagreements in the Chance home, which, unsurprisingly, has an impact on the children.
Hugh finds himself able to return to baseball following a unique surgery that replaces his damaged thumb with his big toe. He begins a coaching/backup pitcher career that allows him to return to the game, though of course this also means a lot of time on the road. Laura begins a cleaning business in order to help out the family’s economic situation. The four sons grow up close and have many conversations both about baseball and about religion. As they become older, the differences between the four boys start to become more pronounced, but their devotion to one another remains firm.
Everett, the oldest son, is outspoken and brash, but he is also bighearted and a natural-born leader. Everett turns away from the church and goes on to speak out against the Vietnam War during his college years. He eventually burns his draft card and flees to Canada to avoid arrest.
The second oldest, Peter, has a world of natural athletic ability, but to the surprise of everyone, turns away from sports in order to pursue a life of spirituality. To the disappointment of his mother, however, Peter chooses to immerse himself in eastern religions. He attends college at Harvard and then earns a scholarship to go to India.
The third son, Irwin, is the most religiously devout of the boys. His life, and the lives of everyone in the Chance family, are radically impacted when Irwin’s girlfriend, Linda, becomes pregnant, and Irwin is drafted and sent to Vietnam shortly thereafter.
Kincaid is the youngest of the Chance boys and acts as narrator throughout the novel. He is probably the most neutral figure in the family, neither devoutly religious nor particularly gifted athletically, which makes him an ideal commentator on the family’s experiences. In spite of this (or maybe because of it), the reader learns less about Kincaid than about any of the other members of the Chance family.
I am going to keep this summary deliberately sparse, because there really is no good way to encapsulate the scope and complexity of this novel in a blog post. At 716 pages, and with all the different themes and conflicts taking place throughout, any competent English student could easily write 3 or 4 drastically different term papers on this novel, and that still wouldn’t scratch the surface of this book. There is a lot there, but it is well worth the journey.
When I reached the end of the novel, my first reaction was, “Damn, that’s a good book.” I can honestly say this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I have read many. Don’t let the page count nor the multifaceted nature of the story deter you — this book is rated highly on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and probably any other book-related website where you can find it, and for good reason. This book made me angry at times and sad at times, but it also had me literally laughing out loud at times. I strongly recommend it.