Review & ARC Giveaway: Men We Reaped

14Jan14

How much do I love advance reading copies? A lot. Although the trend seems to be moving toward digital ARCs, there are still plenty of print ones floating around in my professional universe for the time being, and I snag them every chance I get (if you’ve been on the receiving end of a flying elbow as I push you out of the way, please accept my heartfelt apologies).

When I spotted Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped in the ARC pile at work, I was thrilled. Friends had recommended it, and the wait list at the library was quite long. It turned out to be an astonishing read, one that even readers who haven’t tried her novel, Salvage the Bones, will find moving and compelling.

Click through to read the New York Times review.

Click through to read the New York Times review.

Men We Reaped is the story of both a family and a town, Ward’s hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. Between 2000 and 2004 five young men from DeLisle lost their lives; one of them was Ward’s brother, Joshua. Five young men in four years is a scary-high number in a small town, and, in her grief, Ward decided to tackle the question of why. Using her own family history as her point of entry, Ward’s chapters begin with her own family and ripple out to encompass the story of the community.

In possession of the double consciousness of insider and “one who got away,” Ward is the perfect person to write about what it’s like to be poor and Black in Mississippi. Frustrated by the lack of jobs, but reluctant to leave their families, the young men of Reaped are trapped by boredom, alcohol, drugs. Even those who leave and try for a better life elsewhere slowly, inexorably make their way back to DeLisle and its familiar patterns. The known, it would seem, is less frightening than the unknown, even if the known is ultimately what kills you.

Ward doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of drug and alcohol use, dead-end jobs, or family feuds. And yet, there are also the kinship bonds so difficult to shrug off, even to save a life. Who would want to leave behind a mother, a sister, a brother, a best-friend-cousin? What is there out there in the world worth more than your family? The genius of this memoir lies in Ward’s ability to show DeLisle at both its worst and its best, making the reader simultaneously want to experience it for her/himself and run away screaming.

Writing memoir takes a lot of courage. There’s always the risk that somebody will be angry with you for telling hard truths, or accuse you of making things worse than they are. Ward’s courage in telling us her story, and the stories of the people she loves best (with their help and permission, as we learn in the acknowledgements) allows the reader to bear witness to a hard truth: you can do all the right things and still fail, if the soil in which you are planted is inhospitable to you, and those like you. Men We Reaped is strongly recommended for not only for those who like memoir, but also for readers who value a strong sense of place in a story, and those concerned with racial justice in America.

Thank you for reading this review! If you leave a comment on this blog post by 9 p.m. Eastern time, you will be entered into a raffle for my ARC copy of this memoir.

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