23 Dec 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward


#3 Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Well, I’m having trouble figuring out how to talk about this book. I came in with few expectations – I haven’t read Salvage the Bones yet, this wasn’t a required read, and it wasn’t a big “buzz book” that I’d heard tons of opinions on. I thought it sounded interesting. I like memoirs. I had a copy at the ready.

I was completely blown away. What Ward does here is so genius: she writes a memoir, but also the life stories of five young men in Ward’s life who died in a five year spa – including her own brother. Ward starts from her most recent loss and moves backwards in time, recalling the details of each young man’s life while also detailing her own. Ward really could have written a memoir about her life alone – the vividness of her childhood memories is impressive and her journey out of her impoverished hometown is compelling enough.

But lives don’t exist in a vacuum. Every human on this planet has a full, rich life that is tethered to other lives. Although Ward isn’t terrible close to all of the young men she writes about, her stories illustrate how connected they were through the bonds of their community. Which are the same kind of bonds that bring together any group of people. If you had a student die at your high school, think about how that rippled through the school and your town. When a kid dies, there is grief. Young deaths rock communities. When systemic racism and class disparities contribute to a higher rate of premature deaths in a certain community, that is just blow after blow. As Ward writes it, the second death of a loved once doesn’t hurt any less than the first. Neither does the fifth.


It’s easy to think about severely impoverished parts of the country as far away from whatever kind of life you – reader who can afford a computer to read this blog post and also maybe buy a book once in awhile – are leading. Books like Ward’s help me to feel tethered to the lives of others I might not otherwise relate to – that might stereotype or dismiss.

I found this memoir powerful, personal, exceptionally readable, and important. Oh goodness, important. After months of watching the horrors of what is happening in Ferguson this summer, I wish I could gift this book to every person in my country. Police violence is just one of the many ways that young, Black men can die, and Ward’s memoir explores just how harrowing and haunting each of those lives can be. Highly, highly recommended.

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