We often forget that super villains have mothers. And fathers. And brothers and sisters. For most people, it is nearly impossible to reconcile that evil villains, terrorists, used to be someone’s innocent child.
In her book, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, Masha Gessen pushes her audience to understand the family and background of the Tsarnaev brothers, and how that foundation may or may not have been responsible for their act of terrorism. Presenting her book as a giant case study of the Tsarnaev family permits the reader to study the facts she presents as one would study for a politics exam. Moreover, Gessen expertly chooses anecdotes and uses specific diction that she hopes will illicit a sympathetic response. However, at least for those of us in New England, this book may come off as a plea for pity for the brothers, a plea that, most likely, will go unanswered.
By constructing her facts in a typical story arch — introduction, conflict, conclusion — Gessen allows her non-fiction collection of facts to read like a novel. This story line follows a linear time progression and goes through three generations; the reader follows the family as they move between three continents.
At the very start of the book, the author presents a mission statement. Within that declaration Gessen explicitly says that her book is about ” . . . the tragedy that preceded the bombing, the reasons that lead to it, and its invisible victims.” Baring these facts in mind, the book is a story of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s initial innocence that otherwise may not have been told.
The anecdotes from the brothers’ childhood are meant to illicit a sympathetic response from the reader. Stepping back into family lore, all the way back to where Anzor and Zubeidat (the bombers’ parents) met, and then moving through to 2013, this author is looking for her reader to form an emotional attachment to the brothers.
Furthermore, Gessen uses flowery language in the hopes that her diction will shed some sympathetic light on the Tsarnaev family. For example, when describing the scene in which the police find Dzhokhar in the boat, Gessen describes that the “terrorist responded [to the police] in a childlike voice…” Gessen creates juxtaposition within that sentence by using the words “terrorist” and “childlike” to describe Dzhokhar; this language is meant to remind the reader that this evil-doer was only nineteen years old, basically a still child, when he bombed the Boston Marathon. The same treatment is applied to Tamerlan when she says that his “cockiness had a way of coming off as innocent.” This author is trying to show her readers the benign and docile characteristics of these two men.
Midway through the book, Gessen switches from early life events of the Tsarnaev brothers and turns her gaze to the resulting political consequences of the bombings. As an active journalist in both the United States and Russia, and a staunch critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Gessen does not shy away from discussing the hard political issues. Instead, the author boldly goes to criticize the undertones of religious discrimination and initial investigation into the brothers. Gessen states that “using only the known facts, it is possible to construct a plausible theory of what happened with the Tsarnaev brothers – and to point to the gaping holes that the investigation into the attack had, at least by the time [Dzhokhar’s] trial began, failed to answer.” She suggests that the initial investigation into the brothers was shaky to start off. Thus, she readily shows her lack of confidence in the initial handling of the response and by extension the American justice system.
At times, Gessen’s book comes off as a eulogy to the children Tamerlan and Dzhokhar used to be. She laments their adult decisions and places the blame on their chaotic lives and the justice system. While it might be interesting in passing, Gessen’s representation of the story may not gain much credence with its audience.