Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman
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Last Updated on October 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, published in 1984, is a story about the divergent paths the author and his younger brother, Robert, took in life. The author—ten years older than Robert—explores how two brothers who grew up in the same household and neighborhood can go on to lead radically different lives.

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While John and his other siblings worked hard in school and did well, Robbie mocked them for being "square." He was determined to live large and make something big of himself, even if that meant participating in illegal activities. Robert and his friends pool all their money to buy heroin in order to resell it at inflated prices to drug addicts. However, the heroin is from a bad batch—so bad, in fact, that Robert becomes sick from it. In order to make money to buy a clean batch of heroin, he and his friends turn to another scheme, which goes horribly wrong. In the ensuing struggle, a white man is shot and subsequently dies.

Robert and his friends go on the run, but are soon arrested in Colorado. Robert was in jail for over six months before his case went to trial, and he then spent an additional two years in a county jail before he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Although Robert did not pull the trigger that ultimately murdered the white man, he still received a life sentence.

John often visits the prison where his brother serves out his sentence, and he has a lot to say about the current state of prisons in the United States. Although he condemns the atrocious conditions inside prisons, he saves his most blistering attacks for the sadistic guards he refers to as "the Keepers."

Although Robert has no chance of being released from prison, John sees Robert trying to make the best of his circumstances. Once Robert has earned his college degree, he realizes that his childish "get rich quick" schemes were doomed to fail. He says,

My education helped me to realize . . . that nothing worth having comes without hard work and concrete effort.

John knows that Robert is in constant peril, because prison is a dangerous place to be. But he also knows that Robert's street smarts have likely helped him adapt and persevere in this terrible place.

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