Brotherkeeper by Lawrence Winters

Lawrence Winters served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The author of The Making and Unmaking of a Marine, he is a mental health counselor, and has returned to Vietnam to study PTSD in the Vietnamese people. He also has worked as Director of Veterans Treatment at Four Winds Hospital in New York.

Brotherkeeper (294 pp., $21.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Winters says, is a novel that explores “the relationship of veterans to their families and communities.” In 2013, Winters read the works of Jonathan Shay on Vietnam veterans and PTSD, and “realized moral injury had been the reason my soul would not return home.”  War’s affect on morality is a major theme in his book.

The main character is Jake Flynn, a Marine. He has not left his time in Vietnam behind and suffers from nightmares and flashbacks. He has a wife, Naomi, with whom he is not honest. Naomi wants Jake to be over the Vietnam War, which Jake cannot do. Naomi is very controlling on this issue. She allows Jake only “acceptable TV viewing, no VFW, no war discussion in his high school classes and no meetings with old Marine Corps buddies.”

Jake teaches high school, which seems a risky choice for a Marine veteran with PTSD. Disclosure: My father was a high school math teacher and a Marine Corps veteran—of Iwo Jima. He taught high school as a penance for having survived Iwo. I think perhaps Jake had similar motivations.

This is another book in which the characters keep secrets. “He’d been seeing Sam, the therapist, for three years, and hadn’t told him he was a Vietnam vet with a chest full of medals. All they ever talked about was his father.” I was so annoyed when I read that passage that I almost quit reading the book. But I persisted.

Another aspect of the novel that posed a serious problem for me was the frequent use of italics for no reason that I found justifiable. In Chapter 57, for example, there are twenty-three straight pages of italics. This is italics madness. A good editor would not have permitted this.

Larry Winters

One of Jake’s students wants to become a man by joining the Marines. He talks to Jake about that. Jake thinks that joining the Marines would be the worst decision he could make.

Another character dynamic is Howie Watkins, the Marine Corps recruiter in the small town. He’s so troubled by his job sending recruits into harm’s way that he attempts suicide. Howie says that his job makes him feel like a contract killer. Alma, Howie’s wife, is deeply concerned about Howie—for good reason.

A missing father, Shiloh, leaves behind a manuscript about his time in Marine Force Recon. That’s the 23-page section of the novel rendered in italics. Shiloh becomes an important part of the novel. Much is made of Indian sweat lodge ceremonies and their purification rituals. The sweat lodge ceremonies are accurately and respectfully portrayed.

Brotherkeeper is a complex novel dealing with war and moral issues. Aside from too much italics, there are also too many characters who smirk. And everyone in this novel seems to be related to a Marine, or was a Marine. I thought it was “the few, the proud.”

We get many of the usual clichés of Vietnam War novels: Marines don’t leave Marines behind, Agent Orange, Marines called baby killers, criticism of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for being “an Asian design,” and others. But they are appropriate to the characters.

Those looking for a serious novel about dealing with the moral injuries of the Vietnam War—and perhaps fans of the works of PTSD expert Edward Tick—will benefit from this book.

The author’s website is http://lawrencewinters.com

—David Willson

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