My Brother’s Keeper
is the second novel by American author Patricia McCormick, acclaimed author of Cut.
Published in 2005, the book tells the story of the Malone family, who are struggling to keep it all together after their father walks out on them. Through this narrative, McCormick examines the fallout of familial strife and the toll it takes, especially on brothers Toby and Jake.
The novel centers on thirteen-year-old Toby Malone. At the beginning of the book, Toby is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his father has just left his family. The boy worries about his dad, who was recently laid off from his factory job, leading him to give up hope of being able to support his wife and three children and to his decision to leave. Toby believes his dad has moved to California, but he is not sure as his father has cut off all contact with his family. At first, he believed the absence would be temporary, but now Toby is starting to worry that his father might never come back.
This is not the only thing on Toby’s mind. Like most teenage boys his age, Toby has a slew of issues he is facing: the struggle to fit in and feel a sense of belonging among his peers; the impending sex-ed class he is being forced to take at school; the upcoming tryouts for the baseball team that he badly wants to be a part of; trying to decipher whether a girl at school is interested in him or finds him strange. On top of it all, he has spotted a few grey hairs sprouting on the top of his head.
Toby has always looked up to his older brother, Jake, who has been a pillar in Toby’s young life, someone to aspire to. Jake is the star player of the baseball team, claiming the title of MVP. He also has a certain charisma and charm and seems to be able to talk anyone into anything, including their mother. There are three brothers, Toby, Jake, and their little brother, Eli. The trio has always had a close relationship, but now, each of them seems to be dealing with the loss of their father in his own way. Their mother has retreated into her own spiral of misery, and Eli has slipped into his own imaginary world, pretending he is a cowboy, and has gone back to sucking his thumb. Toby senses that something is up with Jake as well, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Jake has become secretive and has started spending more time alone, not letting Toby in on what is going on in his life. It seems to be up to Toby to keep the family together, but without Jake, he feels hopeless.
Toby starts to think that Jake is relying on substances to deal with his feelings, just as their father began abusing alcohol before he left. Recognizing the signs from the videos they were forced to watch in school, Toby soon realizes that Jake is getting into serious trouble with drugs. This is triggering for Toby as he watched his father descend into alcoholism. He would go out all night and not come home. Unlike Toby's dad, Jake does come home, but when he does, it is very late at night and he is stoned. He seems to be ambivalent and losing interest in the things that he used to care about, like being a star player on his baseball team.
Toby also notices that Jake has surrounded himself with a new group of people, including a known drug dealer, and he finds out that Jake is stealing to support his habit. Toby is unsure what to do, but he does not want to bring the issues to his mother’s attention as he feels that she has enough to worry about as it is. He takes it upon himself to cover for Jake, making excuses as to why he comes home so late.
Jake confides in Toby, telling him that he has been using drugs, mostly marijuana and sometimes LSD. He says that it makes the pain go away and that when you’re stoned, everything feels like it is going to be okay. Jake is insistent that he has things under control and that nothing needs to change. That is, until one day, when Jake gets into an accident and is nearly killed and then arrested; his mother realizes that she must acknowledge her son’s substance abuse issues. She apologizes to Toby, who has had to deal with Jake all on his own, stating that she had a feeling something was going on but that she didn’t want it to be true. At the end of the book, recognizing the pattern that exists in his family, Toby makes a different choice for himself.