"In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life--to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Read more...
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"In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life--to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth--and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.
Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity. A brutal world rendered beautifully, Jesmyn Ward's memoir will sit comfortably alongside Edwidge Danticat's "Brother, I'm Dying," Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life," and Maya Angelou's" I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
- ISBN-13: 9781608195213
- ISBN-10: 160819521X
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
- Publish Date: September 2013
- Page Count: 258
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-06-24
- Reviewer: Staff
In this riveting memoir of the ghosts that haunt her hometown in Mississippi, two-time novelist and National Book Award–winner Ward (Salvage the Bones) writes intimately about the pall of blighted opportunity, lack of education, and circular poverty that hangs over the young, vulnerable African-American inhabitants of DeLisle, Miss., who are reminiscent of the characters in Ward’s fictionalized Bois Sauvage. The five young black men featured here are the author’s dear friends and her younger brother, whose deaths between 2000 and 2004 were “seemingly unrelated,” but all linked to drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and a general “lack of trust” in the ability of society—and, ultimately, family and friends—to nurture them. The first to die (though his story is told last in the book) was her brother, Joshua, a handsome man who didn’t do as well in school as Ward and was stuck back home, doing odd jobs while his sister attended Stanford and later moved to N.Y.C. Joshua died senselessly after being struck by a drunk driver on a dark coastal road one night. The “wolf” that tracked all of these young men—and the author, too, when she experienced the isolation of being black at predominantly white schools—was the sense of how little their lives mattered. Ward beautifully incorporates the pain and guilt woven her and her brother’s lives by the absence and failure of their father, forcing their mother to work as a housekeeper to keep the family afloat. Ward has a soft touch, making these stories heartbreakingly real through vivid portrayal and dialogue. (Sept.)
Where all the men have gone
After a drunk driver killed Jesmyn Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, in a horrific car accident, the court sentenced the driver, who was white, to five years in jail for leaving the scene of an accident, but declined to charge him with vehicular manslaughter. Ward, in disbelief, thought to herself, “This is what my brother’s life is worth in Mississippi. Five years.” In fact, the driver served only two years before being released.
Bewilderment, pain, rage and resentment flow through the bones of Men We Reaped, Ward’s memoir of growing up poor and black in a rural Mississippi still bathed in the waters of hatred, prejudice and racism. She weaves a tale of loss that begins with her father, who left the family behind to follow his own desires. Other losses quickly followed, and she recounts the stories of five young men—friends, a cousin, her beloved brother—who died between 2000 and 2004, from some combination of drugs, suicide, murder, accident and bad luck. A poignant memorial to Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Dedeaux, Charles Joseph (C.J.) Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana and Joshua Adam Dedeaux, Ward’s book also underscores a harsh truth: Poverty often cripples black men, causing them either to fall into destructive behaviors or to flee from it, leaving their families in the process. Such absences mar her own family, and Ward stands up to tell the stories. “Men’s bodies litter my family’s history,” she writes. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts.”
Searingly honest and brutal, Ward holds nothing back as she strives to find her way in a community that she both loves and hates. There are no platitudes for her as she comes to terms with her losses: “Grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. . . . We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.” In Men We Reaped, she makes her readers feel that pain, too; but more than that, she makes us understand that these men mattered—that their lives were worth something after all.