Book Review: Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel by Scott Cawelti

Creative or literary nonfiction has wide boundaries. Some contend it is nonfiction that happens to use the “styles and techniques” of literature while remaining true to the facts. In other words, writers don’t make things up, they style things up. Others believe those literary techniques include creating dialogue or giving characters various attributes or thoughts as long as those elements are based on or arguably supported by actual events or facts.

Author Scott Cawelti makes clear from the outset of his Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel that it falls into the latter camp. In fact, the book’s copyright page (as well as a later introduction to source material) begins with a disclaimer. It tells readers that although primarily nonfiction, the book includes “interludes of fictional recreation of conversations, personal thoughts and dreams.” He admits that while his fictional efforts might come close to the truth, he could not know what actually transpired in those situations. Instead, his goal was to “create a readable and engaging narrative.” If that is the test of creative nonfiction, Cawelti largely succeeds.

The book is based on the murders of Leslie Mark, his wife and two young children in their Iowa farm home on Halloween night in 1975. Mark’s older brother, Jerry, a former legal services attorney and Peace Corps volunteer, was convicted of the murders, a verdict he has challenged since it was handed down in June 1976. The story plainly has the elements of a novel.

The theory upon which Jerry was convicted is that he became jealous and resentful because, among other things, Leslie was taking over the family farming operation and moving into the “home place” near Cedar Falls, Iowa. On the morning of October 29, 1975, Jerry left his Berkeley, Calif., home on a used Honda motorcycle he bought earlier that month. He pushed himself and the bike hard enough to drive the 1,600-plus miles to arrive at the farm in the early morning hours of November 1. Along the way, he called his girlfriend in Berkeley a couple times, reporting he was hundreds of miles away from where he actually was.

After entering the house and cutting the power, Jerry entered his brother’s main floor bedroom, shooting both Leslie and his wife following a brief struggle. He then proceeded upstairs, killing the family’s five-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son with two bullets each. He immediately headed back west on the motorcycle, arriving in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on the evening of November 2. When some of his story didn’t seem to match up and authorities began checking the length of I-80 to see if anyone saw Jerry, He was arrested the following week in Cedar Falls, where he had returned for the funerals.

In the book, published by Ice Cube Press, located less than 100 miles from Cedar Falls, Cawelti describes the travel and shootings in detail. Much of the latter is gathered from the murder investigation and trial, although Cawelti provides a narrative that is a far cry from the dry, almost clinical, flavor of any police report or trial transcript. Throughout the book and particularly on the journey across the country, Brother’s Blood seeks to take us inside Jerry’s head and even his dreams. While much of this seeks to help us understand Jerry, there doesn’t seem to be as much detail or support as might be expected for the Cain and Abel nature of the story. Much of that, though, appears to be a function of the prosecution’s case and evidence.

Brother’s Blood doesn’t just take the reader into Jerry’s thoughts. We also become privy to the emotions, thoughts and conversations of investigators and family members, particularly Jerry’s mother and girlfriend. Plainly, much of this is or borders on being made of whole cloth. Yet Cawelti, born and raised in Cedar Falls, leaves the feeling that his familiarity with the area and the roughly 30 years he’s spent studying the case provides a basis upon which to ground these passages. Regardless of one’s views of creative nonfiction and its boundaries, Cawelti uses it to not only draw the reader in but to keep the story moving apace.

There is, though, a somewhat persnickety blemish. This type of work requires trust in the author, otherwise it suggests the story is more fiction than fact. Yet on just the third page of Cawelti’s introduction he mentions a 2006 ruling in favor of Jerry by a judge of “8th U.S. District Court.” Then, shortly before the end he calls the judge an “8th U.S. District Circuit Court of Appeals” judge. Neither of those courts exists. Iowa, like every state, has U.S. District Courts, the trial courts in the federal system. Iowa’s U.S. District Courts are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, an entirely separate court which, as the name indicates, is the appellate level (and which reversed the judge’s decision). While failing to distinguish between the two happens, a reader hopes it doesn’t occur in this type of work.

Undoubtedly, this might slip by the average reader. Yet coming as early as it did, the foundation of trust started with a crack. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were errors in areas with which I was not familiar. Still, while the crack caused concern, the bulwark of the story Cawelti was building never failed. And perhaps the risk of such a failure is what justifies his extensive detailing of source material. Nearly a quarter of Brother’s Blood consists of referencing the source material for each chapter, much of which sets forth extensive excerpts from trial testimony and police interviews. While I did not compare all the excerpts to the text of the book, the fact Cawelti is willing to allow such comparison provides a level of comfort for readers.

Perhaps that experience exaggerates why I believe readers should approach literary nonfiction with a bit of circumspection. Cawelti, who taught at the University of Northern Iowa for 40 years, does a service to readers by immediately setting out the boundaries within which the work is set. Ultimately, Brother’s Blood is also a example of how and why creative nonfiction has grabbed readers over the years.

Doing wrong never bothered him so much as getting caught.

Scott Cawelti, Brother’s Blood

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