About the Book: The Brothers K

This touching, uplifting novel spans decades of loyalty, anger, regret, and love in the lives of the Chance family. A father whose dreams of glory on a baseball field are shattered by a mill accident. A mother who clings obsessively to religion as a ward against the darkest hour of her past. Four brothers who come of age during the seismic upheavals of the sixties and who each choose their own way to deal with what the world has become.

David James Duncan David James Duncan

About the Author: David James Duncan

David James Duncan is an American novelist and essayist, best known for his bestselling novels The River Why, which was the inaugural Novel Idea selection, and The Brothers K. Both novels received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers award. The Brothers K was a New York Times Notable Book in 1992 and won a Best Books Award from the American Library Association. He has released several collections of essays including River Teeth, My Story as told by Water, and God Laughs & Plays. Duncan is widely renowned as an activist and expert fly fisher. He currently resides in western Montana.

The Brothers K - Discussion Questions

An Interview with David James Duncan

To be honest, I knew I wanted to be a writer at the moment I actually became a writer, in December, 1959. It happened in a second grade classroom when our teacher, kindly old Miss Hansen, told the class she wanted us to write a Christmas story. As she rambled on about how the story could be about anything remotely Christmas related, into a part of my head I didn’t even know was called the imagination popped a boy my age about whom I managed to write, “It was the day before Christmas. Jesus was going to be seven years old. He had fed all the animals but the sheep. When he got to the fold one of the sheep were gone its name was De-BORE-ha. Jesus ran to his house and ate his breakfast!”

At which point a minor miracle occurred. My Davidness vanished. All I could now see were the actions and environs of this seven-year-old Jesus. Decades passed before I learned that this kind of vanishing was rather renowned. Flannery O’Connor said of it, “No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.” W.H. Auden said of it, “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a person so concentrates their attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that they completely forget their own ego and desires, they are praying.” The moment Jesus ran to his house to eat his breakfast an art that causes the self to become self-forgetful perceived a visible Jesus setting out to find his lost sheep in a visible desert wilderness. And though I have since learned that this miracle is not rare, I’ve never recovered from its first appearance. In fact I began to feed on hundreds of books in which authors accomplished the miracle, and began reading, writing, and floundering my way to a life immersed in the same miracle for thousands and thousands of days.

Late in the composing Brothers K’s multiple climaxes a mysterious Presence began to touch down from time to time as I worked. My gratitude for this Presence was great. Joy was in its very nature. The Presence also gave me an ability to portray some of my characters experiencing the same Presence. One such scene is on page 563, titled “Presence.” It portrays the scraggly pacifist army that sets out from Camas, Washington, to try to save Irwin Chance from a military insane asylum a thousand miles to the south, where he is under assault by mind-obliterating drugs and electroshock. Yet as this ragtag troupe of a dozen and a half, counting an infant in arms and a ful-term baby still in its mother, starts south in a caravan consisting of a rickety 32-foot RV, a sedan, and a pickup driven by Mama Chance’s alcoholic brother, Truman, who can repair all three vehicles—but only if he has access to a steady influx of beer—the fact that Mama, despite her terror of alcohol, supplies Truman his needed fuel, and countless other small exchanges between the caravan members gang up on Kincaid till he finds himself flooded by the Presence, by irrational hope, and by tears.

Similarly, fifty pages later Everett is writing to his true love, Natasha, from the work camp where he was serving his three-year jail sentence for draft dodging, which separates him from her, from the child she’s carrying, from Papa Chance, who has terminal cancer, and from Irwin, for whom Everett sacrificed his freedom to launch the caravan just described. And the erstwhile atheist, Everett, writing to Tasha, suddenly finds himself aiming his words not at her but at

“this other you. I refuse to resort to Uppercase here. But you hear me. And I feel you. I mean you, the who or whatever you are that somehow comes to us and somehow consoles us… I don’t know how to address you. I don’t like people who think they do. But it’s you alone, I begin to feel, who sends me this woman’s love, and our baby, and this new hope and gratitude even as my father goes down and my stupid brother lies broken. So:

O thing that consoles. How clumsily I thank you.”

A greater willingness to express clumsy thank yous. Consolation. And a sense of what a miracle family and friends can be if we’re truly present to one another. In 1993 I received roughly a thousand letters in response to Brothers K—pre-email, of course. And those letters were loaded with stories about unexpected reconciliations between long-feuding family members disagreeing over religion, or politics, or whether dodging the draft or fighting in Vietnam was the moral high ground, and other issues. And almost every letter writer, in reading Brothers K, had been able to perform a strategic withdrawal that let them start paying a new kind of attention that waited for the world to disclose itself to them, rather than to impose their ideas, skills, altruism, creativity, energies—and, let’s face it, agenda, myopia, compulsions, preconceptions, addictions, illusions, and delusions—upon the world and each other. What gave them that ability? The influence of a family epic in which the world was always disclosing itself when the family members truly attended to its infinite creativity. What blocks awareness of Creation’s ceaseless creativity is not creativity’s disappearance. It’s our callouses and callousness, injuries and injuriousness, ruling manias, divided minds, crossed purposes, absurd speed of passage, and lack of trust. It’s not complicated. Instead of hammering on one another with all that, try to sight in something like this:

I don’t believe nature and nurture force us to choose one or the other. Both are involved. Some of my greatest teachers have been: the way my extended family used English early in my life; the huge amount of time I’ve spent studying, or just enjoying, wisdom literature; the countless hours I’ve spent standing in rivers that remained in motion even when I was standing still, the way sentences in stories do when we’re reading; the infinitely varied flights and songs of countless birds; the loss of creatures, places, and people I’ve loved; the experience of grief in response to those losses, leading to the discovery that grief can sometimes be an artform; and the life-changing blasts of occasional mystical experiences, one of which arrived when I was seven years old and a simple little assignment caused a visible seven-year-old Jesus to run in his house and eat his breakfast, then go looking for his lost sheep.


sponsors 2023




        • Tina Walker Davis
        • Paige Ferro
        • Liz Goodrich
        • Ann Hettinger
        • Dana O’Connell
        • Suzy Olsen
        • Michael Rivera
        • Chantal Strobel
        • Laurel Westendorf

        District Board

        • Cynthia Claridge
        • Ann Malkin
        • Ray Miao
        • Anne Ness
        • Bunny Thompson

        Foundation Board

        • Brian Bergler, President
        • Georell Bracelin, Vice President
        • Paula Pyron, Secretary
        • Michele Anderson, Treasurer
        • Todd Dunkelberg, Library Director
        • Sarah Haverly
        • Ann Malkin
        • Sarah Monkton
        • Gretchen Schaffer
        • Brent Uhrig
        • Eric Webber
        • Chantal Strobel, Project Director
        • Suzy Olsen, Development Coordinator
        • Sarah Wuepper, Development Officer

        20 Years of Novel Idea Readers

        • Wylie Ackerman
        • Stephanie André
        • Bea Armstrong
        • Kevin Barclay
        • Christie Boen
        • Erin Borla
        • Cynthia Brandt
        • Ruth Burleigh
        • Jo Caisse
        • Cynthia Claridge
        • Cassie Clemens
        • Joel Clements
        • Michele Clements
        • Julie Connoley
        • Robert Currie
        • Tina Walker Davis
        • Tom DeWolf
        • Stacey Donohue
        • Kayla Duncan
        • Todd Dunkelberg
        • Judy England
        • Paige Ferro
        • Angela Fishel
        • Lauralei Garrity
        • Liz Goodrich
        • Lucy Hilburn
        • Kim Jackson
        • Catherine Jasper
        • David Jasper
        • Richard Jenkins
        • Sami Kerzel
        • Steve Light
        • Jessica Lorentz-Smith
        • Ann Malkin
        • Denise Mariman
        • Lisa McGean
        • Adam Miller
        • Dan Murphy
        • Peggy O’Hara
        • Nathan Pedersen
        • Gladys Pilz
        • Debbie Ross
        • Karen Roth
        • Dick Sandvik
        • Deon Stonehouse
        • Chantal Strobel
        • Aaron Switzer
        • Bunny Thompson
        • Nancy Tyler
        • Helen Vandervort
        • Laurel Westendorf

        Page Last Modified Wednesday, March 8, 2023