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Friday, September 20, 2013

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Heartbreaking and honest, this is Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped.

After the deaths of five men in just a few short years, Jesmyn sets out to discover what causes lie underneath these deaths that makes them happen so often and to such specific people. Jesmyn explores the rural poverty in which she was raised, one family of thousands headed by a mother with no father in sight. Racism, institutional and systemic, is a daily force in their lives; inequality of circumstances goes without saying and drugs are woven into the fabric of their daily existence. Jesmyn explores the circumstances of her home and her world that has laid the foundation for so much loss in her life.

I was captivated by Ward's story and the openness with which she discussed her childhood circumstances. She was not begging  for sympathy; she was rather telling her story without judgment. Only as an adult does she look back and describe to us the hurt that she felt as the only black student (and on a scholarship, natch) at her private Episcopal school, for example. I became so angry for her as she described some of the outright and overt racism she faced on a daily basis. No child should have to deal with words so hurtful and sentiments so vile; however, when you are in the deep South, many feel it is their right to do just this. Ward writes her story with such pathos that I just took it in and sat with it, examining my thoughts on her experiences and her words.

The structure of this book was intriguing and worked beautifully. Ward splits each section into two parts; the first telling her childhood story in chronological order and the second relating the events of one of the losses in her life in backwards order of the time that they occurred. Reading the sections where she described what she knew about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of her friends was incredibly sad, but the final section in which she describes her brother's passing and where she was emotionally at the time both immediately before and immediately after was gut-wrenching and rendered so honestly. I can't say I understand her pain, as this kind of loss is so horrifically tragic and emotionally stunting; I can, however, say that Ward gives us all she has on the page and spares us no amount of pain to soften the blow. It's what makes her writing so beautiful, honest, and emotionally raw.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

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