Friday, October 25, 2019

Law and Order?: Jack El-Hai’s The Lost Brothers

My colleague Jack El-Hai (former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors) loves movies, but he makes his living writing books.  A serious researcher, he has just published his umpteenth work of historical non-fiction. Jack’s books include The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness. There’s also The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, a fascinating inside look at Reich Marshal Herman Göring via his interaction with an American army psychiatrist who was sent to probe Göring’s mental state in the aftermath of World War II. Closer to his Minneapolis home, Jack has written a series of books for the University of Minnesota Press that chronicle various aspects of life in the Upper Midwest. .I haven’t read his Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines, nor his coverage of Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places. But as a parent and an occasional connoisseur of crime fiction,  I couldn’t resist his newest effort. It’s called The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search.

The Lost Brothers is a true Minnesota story, one that began on a chilly afternoon in November, 1951. Three young brothers—aged 8, 6, and 4—left their suburban Minneapolis home to go play in a local park. That was an era we often romanticize as a time when children were free to wander and explore, so long as they were back for dinner. But Kenneth Jr., David, and Danny Klein never came home. Their parents searched, as did the neighbors and an older brother, Gordon, who blamed himself for not going along on the fateful outing. Of course the local police were soon involved too. They stubbornly clung to the theory that the three boys had drowned in the local river, despite the fact that their bodies were never recovered.

Jack has tracked down everything there is to know about this coldest of cold cases. Parents Betty and Kenneth Klein never lost hope that their children would be restored to them, running ads in local papers and annually buying birthday gifts for the missing three. But though their Roman Catholic faith sustained them, and they eventually added four more sons to their family, memories of the lost brothers gradually took their toll. Eldest son Gordon, still alive, continues to be haunted by the loss. And the failure of the police and the FBI to solve the case still rankles local law officers who’ve made it their private mission to find out what happened on that cold November day.

Most disturbing is the fact that the original investigators were so sure of their original conclusion, that the disappearances were the result of a tragic accident, that they barely considered the possibility of foul play. In hindsight, it’s known that some unsavory characters were living in the vicinity of the Klein home, but they have passed from the scene long ago.

If this were a TV show of the Law and Order or CSI ilk, the result would be far different. Someone like Mariska Hargitay, her jaw clenched with determination, would have figured out the missing pieces of the puzzle. Even after all this time, usable DNA evidence would have been recovered, and – following an exciting pursuit – the perp would have been brought to justice. It’s truly a shame that real life doesn’t arrange itself into neat sixty-minute segments, leading to a big, satisfying reveal at the end. Instead, as The Lost Brothers shows us, sometimes what was lost doesn’t get found. But I thank Jack El-Hai for reminding me that life doesn’t always lend itself to tidy endings.

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