Smith grew up in a large Catholic family in the Midwest, where the beer flowed freely and so did the abuse. His parents were firebrands: his mother a fiesty redhead who always got the last word; his father an ex-Marine who was never afraid to throw the first punch, even against his own children or their friends. Smith forged a close bond with his younger brother Jeff, Smith's exact opposite. The description of young Smith and his brother playing war games, canoeing on the lake, or hiding from their dad are precise and illustrative of their close relationship. The prose here is notstalgic and beautiful, clean and cathartic; we are made to see the close bond between the brothers and what Smith lost. Jeff, a self-professed flower child, enlists in the Marines, partly due to the example in the family - both Smith and their father were ex-Marines. He dies within a year of enlistment as a result of enemy bombing.
Upon learning of his brother's death, Smith spirals into a deep depression that lasts for decades. His parents divorce, and his siblings scatter across the country. Without the faith of his wife, it is clear that Smith may not have made it through this rough period. Smith, after recovering from alcoholism, realizes that the only way to process his brother's death is to find out exactly what happened and who killed him. He begins a journey that ultimately takes him to Vietnam and puts him face to face with the man who killed his brother.
The title is ironic, but it also poses an interesting question about family and friendship. Smith was the big brother, the one who protected or "kept" his little brother. Smith's unraveling clearly stems from his feeling of failure, from the knowledge that what he was able to do as a child - keep Jeff safe - was not something he was able to do as an adult. As the book charts the course of Smith's breakdown and his path to acceptance, it also implies a discussion of how we protect our loved ones, if this protection is even possible.
This is a powerful narrative about the strength of families, love, forgiveness, and acceptance. For those who have lost loved ones in Vietnam, or any war, this memoir may help you understand and accept your loss. And, as a friend said upon recommending this book: it will change the way you see the world.