Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Justin Torres's novel We the Animals follows the turbulent and violent childhood of three brothers in upstate New York. The three are of mixed heritage: their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is white. The book discusses how the environment of the predominantly white town, as well as the conditions affecting their parents' lives, influences the three boys.
The narrator of We the Animals is never named. He is six years old at the beginning of the book. As the book progresses, the narrator grows apart from his two brothers because he engages with masculinity and the world around him differently than they do. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the narrator is gay. He is forced into an institution by his family after coming out, and his two brothers no longer speak to him.
Joel and Manny
Joel and Manny are the narrator's older brothers. Throughout their childhood, the three children must primarily rely on and care for each other due to the absence of and abuse by their parents. Joel and Manny seem to respond differently to their violent surroundings than the narrator does.
Ma works the night shift at a brewery and is severely abused by Paps. She became a mother as a teenager and is in her early twenties when the novel begins. At one point, she attempts to remove the children from the house because of Paps's violence toward the family, but they ultimately stay there. Ma also suffers from mental illness. Because of these conditions, she is unable to make good decisions when it comes to the parenting and care of her children.
Paps works as a security guard, though he has a difficult time keeping any one job for long. He is volatile: while he is sometimes a fun and energetic presence, he can often be extremely violent toward his family. He physically and emotionally abuses his three children and Ma.