Recommended Reads: ‘Men We Reaped’ a memoir of loss and love
Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.” I chose to first sample her writing with her third book, this memoir. She recounts the tragic events that predated, and in some ways gave birth to, her career as a writer. In four years she lost five young men who were dear to her. One was her brother. They were lost to drugs, accidents and suicide in their early 20s.
The author grew up in Southern Mississippi. Because this is her story as well as the story of these young men, she also writes the story of her life and family history in the community in the 1980s and 1990s. This dimension is interspersed with dedicated chapters that tell the story of each of the lost young men. She has created a remarkable picture of complex, long standing, systemic problems that plague so many in our society, and take their greatest toll on our youth.
Have your tissues nearby as you read because you will care. Although one of the points made in the book is that caring, guidance, and opportunities were scarce or nonexistent in these men’s lives. Tragically it is too late for them, but this book feels like a call to action to the reader.
Growing up in poverty, books were young Jesmyn’s refuge. She has said, “I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.”
This is a touching, and enraging first-hand account of the impact of history, racism, poverty and economic power on our youth. It’s shown that our youth inherit these influences, which then breed despair and self-hatred, and subsequently tragedies multiply. The despair weighs them down and leaves them feeling their lives are worthless. But the author concludes that the grief from each loss, for all its awful weight on those left behind, shows that these men matter. After reading this book, I think you’ll agree.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that poverty, lack of education, and poor social support contribute to as many deaths as heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer in the U.S.
Her elegy for her brother included a small wish of hope for his loved ones going forward without him. “He taught me love is stronger than death.”
Thereby hangs a tale . . . .
– By Wendy Kendall
Wendy Kendall is a writer, project manager and volunteer at the Edmonds Library. She’s enjoyed living in Edmonds for over 20 years. Follow her via her blog here or on Twitter @wendywrites1.