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Friday, November 30, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

‘100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do’: Love and sorrow between two brothers

By Irene Wanner
Special to The Seattle Times

Like many boys, Kim Stafford and his older brother, Bret, had pets, collected coins and stamps, built forts, joined Boy Scouts. Unlike a lot of siblings, though, they “never fought.” Born a year apart to Dorothy and Bill Stafford, the famous Oregon poet and conscientious objector during World War II, the pair did almost everything together. Even now, Kim Stafford finds their childhood closeness remarkable. “When I look back on the serene temperament we displayed,” he writes, “I wonder about the rare combination of pacifism, beauty, and silence that reigned between us.”

The silence, however, has troubled Stafford since Nov. 7, 1988, when Bret committed suicide at age 40. And in his heartfelt memoir, “100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do” (Trinity University Press, 256 pp., $16.95), Stafford, also a poet and writer as well as a photographer and teacher, explores themes of love, pacifism and silence, probing his sense of guilt for not speaking more openly as the two men encountered the personal and professional challenges that complicate adulthood.

Stafford’s memoir loosely follows a chronological path, and its short episodes highlight memorable, often enjoyable occasions. They’re grouped in four parts based on a blessing the boys said at bedtime: Good night,/ God bless you,/ Have sweet dreams,/ See you tomorrow.These lines covered everything that needed saying when the brothers were children. Too late, Stafford now wishes he had been less passive, more truthful as an adult.

“100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do,” named after a pamphlet Bret sent away for as a youngster, “is not a book about suicide,” Stafford notes. “It is a book about the tricks required to become a human being.” Tricks, another poetic refrain gracing the prose, take many forms. They’re nothing as simple as whisking a tablecloth from under fragile plates and cups without breaking any; instead, they’re lessons anyone would do well to master. Many are subtle, difficult to perfect and require practice.

“For if there is one thing my brother’s story teaches me,” Stafford observes, “it is that the trick of life is harmonious relations, and the key to harmonious relations is talking bravely. This I failed to do then. This I try to do now.”

He wishes, for instance, that after Bret had quit a good job with benefits, moved to Canada with his wife and children, then later returned alone to Oregon to start over, that he — Stafford — had insisted on helping Bret cope instead of simply trying to assure “him he could make his way into a new life.”

The appealing voice telling these stories seems humble and honest. It’s impossible to know what’s omitted, of course, but Stafford notes a “crime wave” of shoplifting when he was in second grade, being demoted to the lowest reading group, not gaining admission to Stanford. In the ’60s, those wild times of war protest and sexual freedom, he wanted to do the right thing with girls, but what was the right thing? It was another topic he and Bret didn’t discuss. “I was totally innocent and a fool,” he believes. Later, his marriage failed.

But he recounts many vividly rich times, too. Once, for example, the brothers tied themselves together and ventured onto a glacier. Their lives were at risk but what Stafford dwells on is the clear light, the amazing blue ribbons of ice he’s never seen anywhere else. He recalls the two of them singing when they struggled through their math homework. And while scouting lost its appeal — it was “too militaristic” — camping, hiking and nature were a constant solace.

The epigraph of “100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do” is a line of Stafford’s father: “Why tell what hurts?” This exquisite book is Kim Stafford’s answer. It’s difficult to tell what hurts, he explains, but “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”