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.