By Hector Tobar
5:45 PM EDT, September 6, 2013
Jesmyn Ward's heart-wrenching new memoir, "Men We Reaped," is a brilliant book about beauty and death. The beauty is in the bodies and the voices of the young men she grew up with in the towns of coastal Mississippi, where a kind of de facto segregation persists.
There is C.J. Martin, one of her many cousins. "He was small and lean, angled all over with muscle," writes Ward. "His face was shaped like a triangle, and the only things that were dark about him were his eyes, which were so deep in color they were a surprise."
Ward fills almost every page of "Men We Reaped" with lyrical descriptions of the people and the land, much as she did with her 2011 novel "Salvage the Bones," which won the National Book Award. "Men We Reaped" is at once a coming-of-age story and a kind of mourning song as Ward describes her upbringing in a poor Mississippi family and the violent, early deaths of five young men who were close to her, including younger brother Joshua.
One by one, the young men die. A car accident, a suicide, a drug overdose, a murder. It's a painfully tragic story, but also one of community and familial strength. In the end, "Men We Reaped" tells the story of Ward's own salvation thanks to her mother's grit and sacrifice, her love for the people around her — and the power of literature to liberate the soul.
Early in her book, Ward is a twentysomething college grad hanging out at home with the kids she grew up with. Over crayfish and beers, she tells her friends that she's trying to be a writer, one who pens "Books about home. About the hood."
"You should write about my life," says Demond Dedeaux, a bright young man who is one of the few in Ward's orbit with a stable household but whose future is limited to menial jobs in the local service and casino industries.
"Most of the men in my life thought their stories, whether they were drug dealers or straight-laced, were worthy of being written about," Ward writes. "Then, I laughed it off. Now, as I write these stories, I see the truth of their claims."
"Men We Reaped" is not a book about the sorrows of growing up black in America. Rather, it tells a story about growing up black and poor in the post-civil rights era 21st century South. Class looms over the fate of Ward's family as much as race does. Near the end, Ward's "upper middle class" African American boyfriend makes a cameo, and it's clear that his life couldn't be more different than hers. "Every time some ill luck befell my family, some unique confluence of events that bespoke what it meant to be poor and Black and southern, it shocked him," Ward writes.
The Southern economy has cratered, leaving families adrift in towns such as DeLisle. In spite of being seen as a "black" community by outsiders, DeLisle, Miss., is really a place of mixing, with "African, French, Spanish, and Native ancestry all smoothed to the defining Black in the American South."
Ward and her siblings are themselves a product of this mixing. She is closest to her younger brother, Joshua, and she offers this deeply moving description of him acting out as a slightly older boy on the day their philandering father finally leaves home:
"He ran around the house, lap after lap….crying for Daddy. The uncles and aunts ran after him, caught him, held him squirming to them, told him to stop, but he sobbed louder and fought and squirmed in their arms. He was six now, his once blond afro shaved short, and he was strong. They let him go and he hit the ground running and crying." The boy runs for hours, until he finally collapses in tears.
"Men We Reaped" is filled with many such intimate and familial moments, each described with the passion and precision of the polished novelist Ward has become. We learn early in this book that Joshua is doomed to an early death. And yet in each appearance here, he is a fully realized character — first as a boy and then as a young man full of life, a dreamer despite his limited horizons.
DeLisle is also known as "Wolf Town," and it's a place that swallows up dreams and turns them into ghosts. At an early age, Ward is given the gift of a private education — at a school where she is the only black student. (The wealthy white family her mother works for pays her tuition.)
Ward is one of those rare writers who's traveled across America's deepening class rift with her sense of truth intact. What she gives back to her community is the hurtful honesty of the best literary art. She writes in "Men We Reap" of her struggles to capture the people of her community — and their many foibles — on the written page.
At first, she writes, "I loved them too much: as an author, I protected them from death, from drug addiction, from needlessly harsh sentences for doing stupid, juvenile things… All the young Black men … in my community had been prey to those things in real life, and yet in the lives I imagined for them, I avoided the truth."
The young men who die in "Men We Reaped" are all, in Ward's telling, real, flawed and human. And yet, not all can be said to be directly responsible for their own deaths. A kind of dark fate hovers over Wolf Town, with life cheapened by societal neglect, prejudice and crime. The deaths of Roger, Demond, C.J, Ronald and Joshua, seemingly coming one right after the other, leave Ward and her relatives feeling as if they've been through a kind of "war," Ward writes.
"Men We Reaped" is the stirring and sad record of that war, a quiet violence that is sweeping through many American communities, but that has not yet destroyed the resilient people who live within them.
Men We Reaped
Bloomsbury: 272 pp., $26
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