Saturday, March 1, 2014

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Title: Men We Reaped:  A Memoir
Author:  Jesmyn Ward
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2013. 272 pages.
ISBN:  160819521X / 978-1608195213

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "My entire community suffered from a lack of trust:  we didn't trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless."

Jesmyn Ward lost five young men -  close to her in the very short span of five years. They all died of different causes - accident, suicide, murder, drugs. However, one reason underlies all their lives and deaths - the fact of who they were and where they were. This is their story and her story.

The title of the book comes from the writings of Harriet Tubman:

"We saw the lightning and that was the guns;
and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns;
and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling;
and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men we reaped."

A powerful image for a powerful narrative.

Home for Jesymn Ward is the small town of DeLisle, Mississippi. Delisle is a very small town with a  population of a little over 1,000 people. According to the Information Please database, Mississippi is 48.6% male, and 51.4% female. Racially, Mississippi is 59.1% white, 37% black, and the remaining a combination of other races. Historically, the state has had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country; according to 2007 census data, the state was ranked 50th - dead last.  In the eighteenth Report Card of American Education, Mississippi's rank is 48th.

This data is current. Imagine what it was ten years ago, when these events took place, or 20 years ago when these young people were children, or 30 years ago when they were born.

This is the environment into which these young people are born and in which they are raised. Not encouraging even if a child is born into privileged circumstances. Imagine if you are born a minority and poor. That is what they faced. A lack of opportunity and a lack of hope.

This narrative starts at the beginning and the end of the story. It alternates between the story of Jesmyn's childhood - the beginning - and the stories of the young men starting with the most recent death - the end.

The story of Jesmyn's childhood explains the context, the community, and the culture in which these young people live. This context is critical because "learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart ... I'll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, and about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here."

The story of each young man is a memory of the boy / man that he was and the tragedy of his death. These were young men with the understanding that "what it meant to be a man [was] resentful, angry wanting life to be everything but what it was."

It concludes somewhat at the middle and the end of the story. We are left with the death of Jesmyn's brother - the first of the young men to die, and we are left with those who live on. "We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach."

This narrative left a lasting impact on me. Two questions will stay with me for a long time:  Jesmyn Ward wrote her story. How many more stories like hers are out there that go untold? How does still happen in modern day America?

As a book, my most favorite and least favorite part of the book is the fact that it is written as a narration - one individual telling a story to an audience. The writing style is my favorite part because it conveys the courage and fortitude it took to write this story and to survive the life described.  No words could truly ever capture what Jesmyn Ward attempts to capture. Even she concludes with, "This story is only a hint of what my brother's life was worth ... It is worth more than I can say. And there's my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say."

The writing style is also my least favorite part of the book because it creates a distance between the narrator, the story, and the emotions. As a reader, the narration also creates that distance for me. It becomes more of an intellectual understanding of some of the things she faced rather than an emotional absorption into the people and the events.

As a book club read, this book had an interesting result. Unequivocally, we were all impacted by the book and shared the feelings described here. That is positive in that it proved to be a powerful read for all of us. However, some of our most involved discussions come from the books in which individuals reading have differing takes on the book. This one resulted in less discussion of it as a book because this one I loved and our entire group loved.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to talk to you.

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