Have you ever thought about what it would be like to grow up in Nazareth with Jesus as your older brother?
Does anyone ever want a “perfect” sibling? Most people can relate to situations where so-and-so can do no wrong, where goody-two-shoes conquers all with his self-righteousness. In families, that usually leads to more dissension. I wonder how it worked under Joseph’s roof.
In Nazareth, worse troubles abound in the aftermath of Jesus’s launch of an unusual ministry. According to John 7:5, “Not even his brothers believed in him.”
Yet we know that his brother James later wrote the New Testament book named after himself. What happened between John 7:5 and his penning of that epistle, and eventually being martyred for the sake of Christ?
One thing we know for sure: in Acts 1:13-14, James was with the believers in Jerusalem before Pentecost. I Cor. 15:7 reports that Jesus appeared to him. At some point, James must have learned how to “count it all joy” when trials came, knowing “that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2,3).
Prior to that, this family in Nazareth, children of Joseph and Mary, ended up in the shadow of a so-called prophet who was not welcome in his hometown. Far from it—the townsfolk tried to stone Jesus when he claimed to fulfill the scripture of Isaiah after reading in the synagogue.
Tackling this situation through the lens of historical fiction is Tracy Groot, author of The Brother’s Keeper.
Back Cover Blurb
The sons of Joseph run a successful carpentry business in Nazareth. At least, it was successful until the oldest brother, Jesus, left home to tell the world he will forgive their sins and save their souls. Now everyone is hearing outlandish reports of healings and exorcisms. Business is suffering: not many people want a stool made by the family of the local crazy man.
When one of his brothers starts listening to Jesus’ troubling speeches and fanatical Zealots descend on Nazareth to convince his family to join their fight against Rome, James wants nothing more than to shut out these rumblings and have a normal life. But normal walked out the day his brother did.
James knows that this year’s Passover pilgrimage will be more important than ever. Hearing about a possible plot against Jesus, he must find him and talk some sense into him before it’s too late. And he must decide for himself who his brother really is. But on the dusty road to Jerusalem, more than one faction has murder on its mind. . . .
The Brother’s Keeper is first in a two-book series, followed by The Stones of My Accusers. I happened to read it second, not realizing it was part of a series. But no serious harm done. However, for the full effect, I recommend reading it first, as intended.
The family wallows in a cloud of shame from two years prior when Jesus returned to Nazareth and was nearly stoned for blasphemy. On top of that are reports of healings and more so-called blasphemies. Life is confusing enough as they struggle to survive the depraved world they live in—with its injustice, untimely deaths, and disaster. But how can they deal with their oldest brother who only adds to the confusion and mayhem?
Furthermore, zealots are poking their heads into the carpentry shop, having heard rumors of their own kind following Jesus. They’re hoping Jesus will get onboard with them. But if the Romans find out, that will only pose more danger for the family.
After seeing Jesus upset the money changers in the temple, his brother Joses remarks: “Believing in Jesus was like tapping your chin to invite a blow.”
Multiple viewpoints enrich this story. We become privy to how Jesus’s actions impacts other siblings as well. Besides James, we hear from Simon (training to be a scribe), Jude, and sister Jorah. Joses lives elsewhere in Nazareth, married with two children, and sister Devorah lives in Bethany.
Thrown into the mix are Katurah who is fond of James; Nathaniel, an unconventional Jew from Caesarea with plenty of questions about proper Judaism; and the widow Annika, full of sage advice.
Several recurring lines propelled me through the narrative: “The scarred ones know. Trust the one with the scars.” Several characters followed the urge to Seek James—tying the story to a special box inlaid with lapis lazuli.
There is no neutral ground. James’ fallout from anxiety over Jesus attests to that. One particular zealot challenges him to take a stand: defy the blasphemer, enlist his help with the zealots, or ask for healing. Who is this Jesus anyhow?
For readers who are concerned, we learn about Jesus’s ministry and its effects through rumor and hearsay rather than scenes that feature him.
Join me for some Q & A with Tracy Groot.
Questions about The Brother’s Keeper
You quote John 7:5 at the beginning of your novel: “Not even his brothers believed in him.” Did the story flow out of this verse? What other inspirations brought this story to life?
Tracy: The book was actually inspired by someone who asked me to write a play about James. He had his own ideas, but once he said “James”, I was off and running. James just captured my imagination. John 7:5 was one of a few fascinating verses about how the family viewed Jesus early on. The others include 1 Corinthians 15:7, and the book of James itself, where he never mentioned that he was a blood brother of Jesus. Wondering what took place between John 7:5 and the book of James, a journey from unbelief to belief, is what inspired me.
Did this start out as only James’ story? Or did you plan to write from multiple points of view? How did you decide whose?
Tracy: I like to write from multiple POVs because I like a many-angled view of a story. I knew I wanted to do multiple POVs from the beginning, but choosing them usually comes in the actual writing for me. Nathanael, for example, was a surprise.
What did you want to bring out about his spiritual journey?
Tracy: The key things come from the verses listed above, as well as the interesting observation of Paul in Galatians 2:9-10; here, Paul takes to heart a collective piece of advice that came from James as well as Peter and John: to remember the poor. That speaks, in part, to who James is. It’s a huge part of the gospel message, in my opinion, to remember the poor, and for James to advise Paul to do so shows a spiritual journey that ended really well. (Besides the book of James itself.)
How much of the story and character development went according to your original plan and how much evolved as you were writing?
Tracy: To be honest, I wrote it over 20 years ago and cannot remember how much of it evolved from original concepts. But I do know that nothing ever goes according to my original plans, once research is underway, and that’s usually a very good thing.
Besides studying the Biblical text closely, what other research do you do? Which tools or reference books come in handy for understanding the culture of that time? Have you ever been to Israel?
Tracy: My husband and I went to Israel in 2000 for research for the book. Site research is always important if you’re able to do it. Very often you can find museums that carry THE BEST books for research in their gift shops. This was the case for The Brother’s Keeper; I came home with a massive stack of books which were great for understanding culture, as well as understanding daily life some 2000 years back. Over the years I’ve collected a mini library of close to 100 history books which are an invaluable source for any biblical fiction novel I write.
Archeology and history help us dig into the past, both literally and figuratively, but it’s impossible to know everything. Which cultural details did you have to fill in with your imagination?
Tracy: I have two favorite quotes I keep in mind for research: “Research is endlessly seductive.” Good to remember, when I must say to myself, “Enough, already!” And this from Michael Ondaatje: “Imagination can do wonders with scant information.” I had to fill in certain every day details with terminology from my own imagination. For example, how did they say “I have to go to the bathroom” 2000 years ago? I decided on, “I have to visit the brush.”
Which scene was particularly challenging to write and why?
Tracy: The hardest scene to write was the event based on 1 Corinthians 15:7. Here, James has a personal appearance of Jesus after He rose again. Clearly this event was pivotal in James’ conversion, yet how to write it? Paul records no details about it, except for the time this post-resurrection appearance occurred. James says nothing about it in his book. I was left to my imagination on this, and to date, it remains the hardest scene I ever attempted to write: I’m pretty sure I cussed.
But the very conundrum of writing it is what solved it. I realized that maybe James himself couldn’t explain it, so he didn’t try. (Your dead brother not only lives again, but singles you out for a post-death appearance; are there words for that?) Some stuff bypasses what writers can do. Once I understood that, I had peace. (And stopped cussing.) Then I could write—or not write, ha ha—that scene. Let’s just say I gave it a “treatment.”
Which scene was particularly enjoyable to write and why?
Tracy: The very scene mentioned above—once it was written. After much wrestling, it gave me joy to feel like I maybe understood James, understood why there are no records of this private meeting with him and Jesus. My other favorite scene is toward the end of the book, where Nathanael decides that God himself must love us with all His heart, soul, and strength, if He expects the same out of us.
Questions about writing
Do you have a favorite of the books you’ve written? Which one and why?
Tracy: Such a hard question! I suppose three stand out as my faves: Madman, The Sentinels of Andersonville, and The Maggie Bright. Madman, because in the biblical account of the Gerasene Demoniac in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, it says that he would frequently break apart the chains that held him. My question was, who dared to come close enough to him to bind him? I had to find out.
The Sentinels of Andersonville came about after watching The Andersonville Trial when I was about 12; I wondered who the woman was who drove a wagonload of food up to the prison gates, only to be told she was a traitor to the Southern Cause, and was turned away. Decades later, I had to find out who she was, and if she stayed turned back. (Her name was Anne Hodges, and she did not.)
And The Maggie Bright, because I’m half in love with William Percy, whose character was also based in part on the varied screen-personas of Benedict Cumberbatch. 😀 Kidding. (Kind of.) Finally, I like The Maggie Bright because of Mrs. Shrewsbury, who also showed up as Hettie Dixon in The Sentinels of Andersonville. Some supporting characters just stay with you, and you spin them out another way in a different story. Here, Mrs. Shrewsbury takes the lead on a thread I consider the most important thread of the book: prayer.
Your main advice to writers is to read voraciously. What three books or authors have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Tracy: Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, Madeleine L’Engle…don’t get me started. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old, so I think Laura Ingalls Wilder may have had some input.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Tracy: Both. It depends on the genre. I’m currently at work on a modern fairy tale trilogy, which involves far more outlining than I’m used to, but is necessary for world construction as well as vision for an epic-length story. Mostly, I’m a pantser—it’s how outlines are written. Either way, you show up at the keyboard.
For process, I always do about a year’s worth of research before I start writing the story; I’m a big fan of research, because research is writing. For me, ideas for characters always come through the research of an event, as well as the story itself. I find the story within the researched event. I find the characters within the story. And characters will always, always, always drive the story for me. It usually takes me about 2 years to write one book.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Biblical fiction such as The Brother’s Keeper, you might enjoy my novel, Rain in the Wilderness. I’m seeking a publisher for it. Here’s the blurb:
One night in Bethlehem, Rebekah’s son Matthew is wrenched from her and killed in a massacre of infants ordered by Herod the Great. Thirty years later, as a widow with three grown children, she is still a victim of treachery as the Jews writhe under the oppressive Roman Empire. Her son Jonathan serves a Roman centurion in far off Galilee. Another son, Kaleb, awaits a warrior Messiah and loathes all things Roman, including his brother the traitor. Her kind son-in-law Malchus serves the unscrupulous high priest Caiaphas.
Who will free Israel from Rome’s heavy yoke? Where is the promised Messiah? At the center of controversy, Jesus of Nazareth seems an unlikely prospect. Ruthless debates unite his enemies while dividing Rebekah’s family. And why did Jesus survive the Bethlehem massacre while her own baby was killed?
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Tracy Groot Bio
Tracy Groot is the critically acclaimed and Christy Award-winning author of several works of historical fiction. Her books have received starred Booklist and Publishers Weekly reviews and have been called “beautifully written” and “page-turning” by Publishers Weekly, and “gripping” with “exquisitely drawn” characters by Library Journal. Tracy and her husband have three sons, one daughter (in-law) and live in Hudsonville, Michigan. Connect with Tracy at her website, or follow her on Facebook.
Join me next time for another visit with author Tracy Groot.
Meanwhile, have you read The Brother’s Keeper? What Biblical fiction have you read and enjoyed? Answer in the comments below.