To read Jesmyn Ward’s haunting memoir Men We Reaped is to step inside of her pain and grief. It’s impossible not to be affected by it, not to be left breathless, not to have to put the book down now and then for a spell while you recover.
Ward won a National Book Award back in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones. Set over the twelve days leading up to and right after Hurricane Katrina, that book explored the lives and troubles of a poverty-stricken family living in a small town along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Men We Reaped, minus the hurricane, travels some of the same territory. Here, though, Ward shares the real-life stories of her family and friends as they grew up in and around DeLisle and Gulfport, Mississippi. The book’s driven by the deaths of five young black men Ward was close to. All five of them died, in different and violent ways, within a span of the four years between 2000-2004. Among them was Ward’s beloved younger brother, Joshua.
The book’s a heartbreaking exploration, looking for answers, for connections between the deaths, for some way to make sense out of the clearly senseless. Ward tells us right up front about the five deaths and lets us know she’ll be writing about them in turn, but even though we know what’s coming, it doesn’t make it any less painful. Her gifts as a writer and storyteller are on display with each page, every sentence, every time she makes you wince.
In addition to sharing the stories of these five young men with us, Ward also writes movingly about her childhood and what it was like to grow up poor and black on the Mississippi coast in the late 1970s and 1980s. We learn about her hard-working mother, determined to provide for her children, working as many jobs as one person could to make ends meet. And we hear about Ward’s father, who was a charming man and loved his kids, but also had a wandering eye. We learn, too, about Ward herself and the gift for language and love of reading she showed early in her life.
Ward’s ability to shift from the specific to the general and then back again is one of the most effective things about Men We Reaped. While we, as readers, properly understand it to be her story, it’s also quite clearly a broader one, one steeped in racism, poverty, lack of opportunities, and a lack of empathy. Her story is tragic, but it’s, sadly, not singular. Ward demonstrates this in searing detail, if you’re brave enough to face it.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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