The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher. In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:
Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.
Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:
At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.
As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.
Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising.
LeCraw skillfully weaves numerous subplots into the novel, involving various students, faculty members, and staff at Abbott, and Charlie and Nicky’s mother and stepfather. All are interesting in their own right, and all are significant to the larger story. The characters, including the minor characters, are well drawn, although I felt a bit disconnected from May. (But perhaps that is because she is portrayed through Charlie’s adoring eyes?) In the end, the novel is about Charlie, who grows into adulthood by becoming a teacher.
Teaching saves Charlie when he thinks he has lost everything, just as reading saved him when he was a lonely little boy:
. . . I am used to Charlie get your nose out of the book, but who would listen to such absurd advice? When a book is a time machine, taking me back and sideways to other minds and times and cities and planets, but mostly forward, forward, to dinnertime, to when my mother would walk in the door and the unsympathetic girl would leave and I could re-emerge into my life , and it would be only the two of us again, my mother and me, and although I felt like I barely had her at least she was mine alone — who would give such magic away?