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Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana

Review

Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana

High school sports serve as a fulcrum in many less populated areas of our country, where the distractions of big city life are missing. Montana is no exception, and the Class C boys basketball championships regularly draw crowds of thousands.

Abe Streep zeroes in on one team from Arlee, a town north of Missoula in the southern part of the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Arlee Warriors go to the state championship three years in a row, starting in 2017, and Streep takes us to these games, providing colorful play-by-play of the action: “The next sixty seconds passed in a vicious ballet of steals and turnovers…. Phil took off in a straight line for the ball handler, who looked terrified. Phil ripped it out of the kid’s hands and flew off for a layup, then sprinted back down the court, beckoning to the crowd. The noise sounded like the inside of a breaking wave.”

"In this very readable, heartbreaking and inspiring book, Streep illuminates a time and a culture from which we all can learn. It is well worth your time."

Yet the game of basketball is only one of the themes that BROTHERS ON THREE artfully and thoroughly explores. Family, tribe, community, suicide, betrayal and injustice, both historical and current, come to life through the lens of the author’s focus on two of the Arlee Warriors: Will Mesteth, Jr. and Phillip Malatare. We learn about these boys from their coaches, their parents and grandparents, their aunties and uncles, their educators and themselves. The years that Streep spends with all these people to gather their thoughts and words contribute to an astonishing labor of love and respect. True to his journalistic background (some of his work on this subject was featured in the New York Times), he mostly keeps his opinions to himself, but his love for and loyalty to the boys is no secret: “It was about these boys from Arlee. What they had done and what they would choose.”

As Streep points out, many on the reservation are related through blood or marriage. Will and Phil are cousins, and they are very much teenage boys: laconic, mercurial, unpredictable. The pressure on them and the rest of the team is immense; they are representing their tribes and town, and everyone understands that basketball could be a ticket to college. But that usually entails leaving the reservation and the support of family and friends back home, and they are both ambivalent about that. They are enmeshed in family. Will is devoted to his grandmother, who mostly raised him, and his mother braids his hair before every game. They love hunting and ranching. And they’re very aware of the reputation that Indian kids have with some colleges --- that they will not stick it out.

Did you know that Montana has the highest suicide rate in the country? By November 2017, the number of deaths by suicide in the reservation-wide cluster reached 20: “Whitesell [the superintendent] was horrified at the normalization of suicide --- in response to bullying, loneliness, and, frequently, teenage heartbreak.” The team plays hard to represent their devastated families and community. They even make videos to break the silence around suicide and to encourage youth to reach out for help.

In this very readable, heartbreaking and inspiring book, Streep illuminates a time and a culture from which we all can learn. It is well worth your time.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 1, 2021

Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana
by Abe Streep

  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250210682
  • ISBN-13: 9781250210685