Book Review: “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
Let me be clear. I am a HUGE Jesmyn Ward fan. Her writing is amazing. I love the eloquent way she speaks. She represents a region of this country that needs to have their stories told. I admire the courage she displays in the specific, and sometimes ultra personal, matters she details in her books. This is my book review for “Men We Reaped” by one of my favorite authors, Jesmyn Ward.
In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth–and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.
Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue high education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity.
I lived in the big city of New York until the age of 13, when my family moved to the much smaller town of Newport News in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My family is not originally from New York as we call “home” a rural town in South Carolina. Not unlike many families who currently live in large, northern industrial cities my family through the generations migrated from the deep south. Some moved for change of scenery. Some relocated for economic opportunity. But most assuredly left to escape the burden of living in racist and destitute rural towns.
I took specific interest in this book initially because it was destined to deepen my understanding of what happened and continues to happen in the towns that don’t show up on the map or in the headlines until a plant closes or a person’s life is tragically erased much like the towns my family departed from over the years and like the ones highlighted in this book.
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir is an open and deeply personal excursion through a tragic stretch of death that few would be able to completely recover from. Ward was surprisingly vulnerable in this piece, leaving the reader with no option to remain sympathetic even when Jesmyn was arguably the antagonist of a part of the story.
Without spoiling the book for any potential reader I want to point out two themes I believe Ward captured perfectly by profiling unique characters of her life and sharing small and large stories to illustrate powerful examples: the fragility of men and the effect of a father.
And something about clinging to the top of that rope made me feel closer to my mother and father, even though, physically, I was as far away from my parents as I could get.
The first theme is inherent in many of her character profiles but none hit home more than one of the earlier deaths of the book: Roger Daniels. A charming, fun loving, young man who fortunately escaped the pull and strain of a hopeless town. He found hope in a new town, new setting, and new possibilities. But this new promise proved fleeting and fragile. He couldn’t hold onto the dream life and he was pulled back to home plate, back to the beginning and his eventual end position. Roger succumbed to self medication and hopelessness. Roger’s story reminds me that there are so many out there with the same hope: to find a new skyline filled with brighter skies. They have talent and aspirations and deserve that opportunity to find their joy but unfortunately dark skies become their end fate leaving their dreams as crumbled memories.
The second theme is the importance of a father in the family structure and the effect they can have whether present or distant. Ward weaved her family story along with the story of other men in her life and one common thread is the effect of the men on all of the stories. Some fathers were there for a short spell or sporadically present. Some fathers were never there leaving the family, headed in most cases by the mother, to fend for themselves. It was also apparent to me that some families were better off without the men there at all as the men were utterly destructive when present. The memoir didn’t allow enough pages to dig into this particular topic but as a reader I argued with myself whether Ward and her family would have been better off if her father left never to return. The answer is much more complex than a yes or no answer but Ward leaves you plenty of evidence to work with on either side.
BMR Book Club Feedback
The Black Men Read Book Club used this as our Book of the Month for June 2020 and all agreed the book was a gem. Most thought the book was relatable, eye opening and in some spots depressing because of the hard situations expressed.
Member rating: 4.5 of 5★
This book is an absolute must read. It seemed like a wonderful twist of fate that our book club read the same book that when asked what book of hers we should read when I met her at a book event in Richmond (VA) Jesmyn Ward selected “Men We Reaped.” Ward masterfully sketches a heart breaking peek into the deaths of close figures in her life that unfortunately her captivating writing will not allow you to turn away from.
Reviewer rating: 5 of 5★
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