Joan Brady Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."