100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared –Book Review

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In his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How my Brother Disappeared, Kim Stafford pieces together fragmented memories of the life of his brother as a means of understanding and coming to terms with his suicide. The memoir, separated into four “books” begins with memories the author has of the last few months of his older brother Bret’s life, leading up to the moment he took his life. Stafford muses on the long held belief he has been holding onto that he could have prevented Bret’s death. What follows is a series of anecdotal memories from the two boy’s lives growing up together, and their journeys into adulthood, both together and separate, that have become meaningful to Stafford in his attempt to understand and grapple with the loss of his brother, and closest ally in life. Through these memories, we witness Stafford’s journey to rediscover the memories of his brother that have been clouded by his death. A large majority of the memoir consists of Stafford’s childhood memories both directly and indirectly involved with Bret. Through these memories, we see the differences between Kim and Bret, having Bret in Kim’s life was the single most integral factor in shaping him into the person he became in adulthood. In one section of the book, Stafford describes a memory in which he and his brother had ventured away from their boy scout camping trip, on a solo hike up a mountain, connected by a length of rope tied between them for safety. The image of the rope connecting them becomes symbolic to the reader as more and more of their brotherly bond is reviled, and we understand the deep connection that they felt with each other growing up.

As we read, and more and more memories of friendship and understanding from the boys’ childhood surface, our recollections from the beginning of the book become all the more haunting. As Stafford muses in the opening sections of his memoir, in Bret’s final days on earth, he felt completely alone and in a place that Kim and the rest of their family was unable to reach or even to detect. As Stafford muses on Bret’s behavior in his last weeks, he discovers changes in him that only became visible after it was too late. In the later sections of the book, Stafford reflects on his time with Bret saying “In my life, I observe–in both myself and others–a different habit: we talk about different things at the same time. This is marked by the relative rarity of the following sentence in the flow of our conversations: “Tell me more.” When I remember life with my brother, always eager to tell him what I was accomplishing, I said this too rarely.”

The experience of reading this book was not at all what I expected it to be. I thought the book would be about having a loved one with depression and experiencing their suicide. The book was this in some way, but it was not at all a story of Bret’s death, but rather a story of his life, and for this reason I found the book all the more compelling. As Stafford reflects in the afterward of the book, “I set out to write the story of how my brother disappeared–from the world, and from my family’s conversation–but by writing I find he begins to reappear as a rich dimension in my life. If I did not listen deeply enough to my brother when he was alive, I have been listening since he died.” This assertion that Stafford makes at the end of the memoir was a clarifying moment for me as a reader, who was looking for some kind of unity in the memories that were being recounted. In a way, I feel this is one of the things that makes Stafford’s work so masterful. I did not understand the lesson he had learned, and in turn was passing off to me, until the final page of the book.

For this reason, at times some of the parts of the memoir felt a bit disjointed. Many of the memories that Stafford chose to include did not even include Bret, but in some ways I think this worked for the type of story he was trying to tell. By the end of the book, my understanding as a reader is that the creation of this book, and the compilation of these recollections from the author’s past worked as both a tribute to the life of his brother, but also as means of imparting the truth he has found in these memories. For Stafford, the book is a way of as he puts it,“talking bravely,” which has been something he has recognized as a weakness in not only his own family, but the world at large.

While the message of this book and its lasting impact were insightful and impactful, there were some moments in the narrative that felt inauthentic in the sense of memoir writing. There were moments in the narrative where I felt as if Stafford was blurring the lines between what he felt in the moment, and his feelings about that moment as an adult living in the present. In some cases, it felt like he projected his reflective musings onto his earlier self, often making it seem as if he had found that particular wisdom in the moment, when it seemed more likely that the true meaning of the moment came to him in later contemplation. At times it was difficult to distinguish the difference between what he understood in the moment, and what he now understands the moment to mean.

That being said, the strong aspects of Stafford’s style in the memoir far outweigh the weak. The stylistic choice to divide the story into individual memories made it easy and enjoyable to read. Overall, I think this is the sort of book that anyone can appreciate. In fact, I think for many reasons, the narrative that Stafford has created is one that many people need to hear in this day and age, when hatred and suffering are such prevalent parts of our day to day lives.

Interestingly, I discovered this book during an author panel at the 2017 AWP writer’s conference that was centered around the idea of empathy. In discussion, Stafford mentioned that after writing this book, a friend of his read it and then gave it to both of his sons to read. He felt that it was a type of “medicine” he could give them to help them in the world we live in today. In many respects I think the purpose of this book is to be a kind of medicine for an audience that is programed to hide their vulnerability. Through revealing his own failings, Stafford both atones for the lack of vulnerability he shared with his brother, and coaches his reader on how to find this kind of openness in themselves.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared

Kim Stafford

200 pages. Published by Trinity University Press. $16.95

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