Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Futures Cut Too Short in Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward is flat out, unequivocally, one of the finest young writers working today. A couple of years ago I raved here on my blog about her novel Salvage the Bones, which went on to win the National Book Award.

At the time I remember thinking that this writer could bring me to my knees with the visceral power of her words. Now, with her memoir, Men We Reaped, readers will understand that she is no fluke but the real thing. What I couldn't help but wonder was where she found the inner strength to escape the pull of DeLisle, Mississippi, even long enough to attend college in Michigan, let alone take advantage of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.

Ms. Ward is unabashedly a southerner. When she is away from her home and family she misses it with every fiber of her being. As a person who can make her home most anywhere, I find this kind of obsession with a place, especially one that has so circumscribed her friends' lives, incomprehensible. I tried not to let my lack of understanding color my feelings about this memoir but I found myself screaming at Jesmyn to get out, get out, get out.

Because this memoir is about destruction. It's about a south that chews up young black men and spits them out. It's about a town where alcohol and drugs permeate every activity, every corner of every day. It's about fatherless families and mothers who have to work too hard for too many hours. It's specifically about five young men, one of whom is Ms. Ward's beloved younger brother Joshua, who die in violent accidents or by their own hands.

But these young black men  will not become just more statistics.  Jesmyn Ward resurrects each of them, Roger, Demond, CJ, Ronald and Joshua, fully and totally back to life through her anguish and her words. Ms. Ward is painfully honest, sometimes shockingly so.

 She doesn't make excuses so much as she explains how it is that a 13-year-old can eek out a living selling crack on the street rather than pumping gas at the Mobil station. You may cluck your tongue and wonder why and find it difficult to believe that rural Mississippi hasn't metamorphosed from the days of Emmett Till.  Jesmyn Ward forces us comfortable, middle class readers to open our eyes to the despair inherent in a community that holds no expectations of safety, education, or prosperity. It's a dark place indeed even as it's beautifully rendered.

Fair warning - you may not hear from me for a while. I've just finished two assignments for Library Journal and am about to fall into two monster novels waiting on the holds shelf at my local library, Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things. Sure glad my Christmas gifts are wrapped and mailed!