Joan Brady Essay - Critical Essays

Brady, Joan


Joan Brady Theory of War

Award: Whitbread Award

Born in 1939, Brady is an American novelist living in England.

Initially set in post-Civil War America and spanning over 100 years of history, Theory of War (1993) concerns a white child, Jonathan Carrick, who at the age of four was sold by his family to a farmer to use as he willed until the boy turned twenty-one. Delineating the disturbing physical and psychological effects of slavery on the slave, the slave owner, and their descendants, Theory of War blends fictional events with factual information about the illegal act of buying children and about Brady's grandfather who was sold into slavery as a child. The narrator of Theory of War, Jonathan's granddaughter Malory, reveals her grandfather's story as she decodes his cryptic diaries and interviews her alcoholic Uncle Atlas, Jonathan's only surviving child. Malory relates the brutal treatment Jonathan experienced as a "boughten child": he was tormented and mocked by his owner's son, tethered like an animal and beaten for escape attempts, and, on one occasion, forcibly restrained by his owner while a travelling salesman pulled out his teeth. Jonathan, in turn, resorts to violence and represses his feelings as a means of surviving these atrocities. Although he eventually gains an education, escapes his bondage, and becomes a minister, he remains haunted by his past. He is unable to have intimate relationships with others, has trouble expressing his emotions and feelings, especially anger, and struggles with issues of theology, spirituality, and morality. These debilitating behavior patterns also impact the lives of Jonathan's five children—four commit suicide and the sole survivor, Atlas, succumbs to alcohol. Malory's own physical ailments—a crippling spinal growth—serve as a symbol of Jonathan's suppressed rage being passed on to yet another generation. Some critics have found Brady's presentation of a white slave unconvincing and faulted the work for weak connections between fact and fiction. Others have observed Brady's fitting use of military strategist Karl von Clausewitz's philosophy of war—"a battle between nations was not unlike a battle between two people"—as a simile for Jonathan's methods of survival. Critics have also praised Theory of War as a moving account of a childhood personality irrevocably damaged by abuse and brutality. Wendy Brandmark commented: "When we read about the little boy whose charming spirit is destroyed, we cannot help but think of generations of black slaves whose stories Jonathan's repeats. In her opening quotes Joan Brady sug-gests that slavery, like disability, is an 'allegory of all life in society … but with slavery the metaphor's so much a part of the language nobody pays attention to it anymore.' Through Jonathan the reader may feel what it means to lose one's bearings, to be made less than human."

Principal Works

The Imposter (novel) 1979
The Unmaking of a Dancer (autobiography) 1982
Theory of War (novel) 1993

∗This title was published in England as Prologue.


Ruth Pavey (review date 17 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Grandfather's Footsteps," in The Observer, January 17, 1993, p. 49.

[In the following excerpt, Pavey discusses Brady's focus on anger and faults her blending of fact and fiction in Theory of War.]

Soon after the end of the American Civil War a ragged soldier leads a white child into a Mid-West general store, sells him, then disappears. This startling act, occupying only two pages of Joan Brady's Theory of War, is the source of her whole novel, a story of damage inherited as well as of damage direct.

The meaning of being 'boughten' soon becomes clear to the boy. He climbs cheerfully into his master's farm wagon, but Alvah Stoke is not used to blithe, infantile chatter. Fearing he may have bought an idiot, Alvah tries a clout. The chatter stops. Thus Jonathan Carrick, aged four, is initiated into a childhood of slavery, and a lifetime of anger. Indeed it is the start of generations of anger.

Jonathan's story is told by a now adult granddaughter, born after his death. From her uncle's memories and her grandfather's diaries she reconstructs a life of mythic harshness, intelligence and resilience, lived first as a slave on a faltering Kansas tobacco farm, then as a runaway on the railroads. Though he often has to submit, Jonathan is never submissive. Anger, aimed chiefly at George, Alvah's loathsome son, is his weapon. In the boys' power struggle it stands him in good stead. But later, it finds less deserving targets.

The ways in which this anger taints Jonathan's adult life make up Joan Brady's theme. In a postscript she notes that the book is indeed based on her own grandfather, and what she interprets as the legacy of his horrific childhood; four suicides among his children, for instance. While this is convincing beyond the context of the novel, it is only partially so within it. Brady interpolates it into the narrative as a moralist might clog up a good fable. The story of the grandfather is so exceptional that it might have stood better alone.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Theory of War, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 4, February 15, 1993, p. 163.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Theory of War.]

A white slave in post-Civil War America: that's the hook for this semi-autobiographical fiction [Theory of War]. Brady has already written a novel (The Impostor, 1979) and an autobiography (The Unmaking of a Dancer, 1982); here, she reconstructs a life of her grandfather, the slave.

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Valentine Cunningham (review date 26 February 1993)

SOURCE: "Handing on Hate," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4691, February 26, 1993, p. 20.

[In the following excerpt, Cunningham faults Brady's presentation of a white child as a slave during the post-Civil War era as unconvincing and historically inaccurate.]

Theory of War is the grim story of how one Irish-American, called Jonathan Carrick, became morally and spiritually deformed, as he wrestled for mere survival in awful pioneering circumstances in the period after the American Civil War, and how he came to pass on his deformities to his descendants.

In the hands of Carrick's narrating granddaughter—who researches her family history...

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Scott H. Silverman (review date 15 April 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Theory of War, in Library Journal, Vol. 113, No. 7, April 15, 1993, pp. 124-25.

[In the following review, Silverman lauds Brady for her powerful descriptions of anger and her strong storyline in Theory of War.]

In 1865, a Civil War veteran indentures his four-year-old son to a vicious Kansas tobacco farmer. The boy, who is white and Brady's grandfather, is fictionalized in a remarkably compelling tale [Theory of War] that essentially draws its power from depicting unembellished brutality. Brady's narrative cuts between protagonist Jonathan Carrick's doomed attempts at love and normalcy and those of a son and granddaughter, reminiscing...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Wendy Brandmark (review date 5 August 1993)

SOURCE: "Small Bodies," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 15, August 5, 1993, p. 16.

[In the following excerpt, Brandmark offers a thematic discussion of Theory of War.]

In Theory of War, Joan Brady reveals a little-known piece of American history that has dominated her own life. In the chaos after the Civil War, white children, the sons and daughters of impoverished widows, of ragged soldiers, were sold into virtual slavery. Black slaves—who had been expensive—had just been liberated. These white children, 'a crop of kids nobody wanted', could be bought cheaply, with few questions asked. Jonathan Carrick is probably not more than four years old, a...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Helen Dudar (essay date 12 July 1994)

SOURCE: "A Novelist Imagines Grandpa's Boyhood in Bondage," in The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 1994, p. A13.

[Dudar is a writer from New York City. In the following essay, in which she offers a favorable review of Theory of War, Dudar relates the volume's biographical influences, its composition, its critical reception, and its impact on Brady's writing career.]

Now and then, more out of carelessness than conspiracy, a really first-rate book nearly dies of the reviewing community's neglect. Consider Joan Brady's novel Theory of War. It appeared in early 1993 and sank like a stone. Reviews were scanty, sales scarcely visible. Ms. Brady calculates that...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

Joan Brady with Pamela S. Dear, CLC Yearbook (interview date 26 January 1995)

[In the following interview, Brady discusses the Whitbread Award, Theory of War, and her writing process.]

[Dear]: As the 1993 Whitbread Award winner for Theory of War you hold two special distinctions: you are the first woman and the first American to receive this honor. How did this feel?

[Brady]: I didn't really expect to win. In the literary world here, the Whitbread now carries more weight than the Booker. I just couldn't see a middle-aged, American-sounding woman getting such a thing. Especially when the leading contender was a man—a poet, an establishment figure, very attractive—who had written a biography of Philip Larkin, another British...

(The entire section is 2532 words.)

Further Reading


Elson, John. "Boughten Boyhood." Time 141, No. 16 (19 April 1993): 69.

A positive assessment of Theory of War. Elson asserts that "at her best Brady writes with a poet's economy, evoking [the protagonist's] chaotic century in brief detonations of imagery."

(The entire section is 57 words.)