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Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole

This memorable collection of reflective short stories about commonplace tragedies showcases a gentle, painstakingly accurate writing voice.

father brother keeper

Nathan Poole’s debut collection of short stories, Father Brother Keeper, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and is an emotionally evocative and varied experience. Its contents are rarely connected, as when two consecutive stories follow one family through generations of gentle conflict. However, even stories that don’t share characters do have in common their settings in rural Georgia and a series of small towns. Each is a miniature masterpiece of perfect, often tragic realism, featuring men, women and children dealing with everyday trials: illness, death, divorce, financial hardship.

An old man fights his dementia–“he was losing traction”–when his estranged daughter leaves her two small children with him and drives away. A young man finds more than a dozen bait dogs (fight dogs past their prime) abandoned on his family’s property and accuses the wrong man of the brutality. Two brothers react in different ways toward their mother after their father leaves. Two young neighbor girls who are friends contract the same illness but with different outcomes; mapping this divergence is a challenge for each family. In the stories labelled “Two from Sparta,” four generations live off their land in slightly different ways, each father learning how to make his way with his son. A young man sets out to find the oldest, biggest tree of each species in the country, to honor a death. “It would be an easy thing to do, and good… a dedication. The year I would learn the joy of calling each thing by its proper name.”

Poole’s achievement in this collection is just that, calling each thing by its proper name. Though perhaps simple in their subject matter, each story is weighty in its emotional impact, and sharply, poignantly real. The stories all feature people living simply, accommodating change if not embracing it, and struggling to move forward through whatever life hands them. Poole’s voice is original, authentic and starkly honest; he is clearly compassionate toward his characters even as he walks them through terrible everyday calamities. Father Brother Keeper is a slim book but one that demands to be read slowly and thoughtfully, so that the hints of redemption can percolate. Meticulous, gorgeous and brooding, these stories will appeal to connoisseurs of the short story as well as fans of traditional Southern ways of life and literary fiction.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the February 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 barrels.

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