After publishing two novels, including the 2011 National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward returns with a memoir about the lives of five young men her brother and four friends who all died before the age of 35.
BY ELAINA SMITH
Special to The Star
Ward recounts how these young men succumbed to drugs, accidents and suicide over a period of four years. And she intersperses her own story of growing up in rural Mississippi with her mother, siblings and mostly absent father.
The heart of Wards memoir focuses on the men who are reaped, men who seem to have little in common besides residing in Mississippi and being black.
As Ward looks deeper, however, she discovers that each death is linked intrinsically to the systematic racism that continues a cycle of poverty, lack of education and poor social support in the lives of black people, especially in the South.
As the poorest state in America and also one of six states where at least a quarter of its population is black, Wards Mississippi is this place that birthed me and kills me at once.
Born in Oakland, Calif., on April 1, 1977, Ward begins life in difficulty: Shes three months early, and the doctors dont expect her to survive. A fighter, she defies expectations and leaves the hospital two months later. We come from a line of men and women who have fought hard to live, Ward explains.
This warrior spirit follows her as she grows, as she experiences the abandonment of her father, of the deaths of her friends, and most especially, the death of her younger brother Joshua.
As a toddler, Ward and her parents return to Mississippi, where her three younger siblings are born. Poverty, constant moves and Wards fathers infidelities plague the family. Despite his immature proclivities, Ward depicts her father with affection, recounting memories of dancing and playing with him as a young girl.
Wards mother is steadfast and hard-working, and turns in on herself as Wards father comes and goes, unfaithful and feckless. Ward admits that sometimes I think that my mother felt that if she relaxed even a tiny bit, the world shed so laboriously built to sustain us would fall apart.
As a middle-school student, Ward receives a scholarship from her mothers white boss to attend a private school; after graduation, she goes to school in California and Michigan, but always returns home.
As Wards personal history progresses chronologically, she tells the other stories backward in time. First up is Roger, who dies of a heart attack from a mixture of cocaine and narcotics; then Demond, shot and killed in his front yard; C.J., Wards sisters boyfriend, who dies after the car he is riding in is hit by a train and set on fire; and Ronald, who commits suicide.
In 2000 four years before the deaths of the other four men Wards world shatters, when her younger brother Joshua dies in a car accident. Despite being bright and artistic, Joshua drops out of school in ninth grade, another victim of Mississippis apathetic educational system. Joshua becomes another cog in the failing system, selling crack to make ends meet while working odd jobs.
While driving home from his job at a casino, a drunk driver hits and kills Joshua. Ward writes this chapter with restrained emotion. A year later the man responsible for Joshuas death is sentenced to five years in prison he serves only three and to pay a fine that Wards family never receives. This is what my brothers life is worth in Mississippi, Ward writes. Five years.
Grief and anger punctuate Wards Men We Reaped; it is a proclamation against remaining silent in the face of so much tragedy and injustice.
I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story.
It is not an easy journey, but Wards writing is a rebellion against everything she learns as she comes of age. Bringing ghosts back to life, refusing to let their deaths be in vain, Wards memoir is a triumph: We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die, she declares. We survive; we are savages.
Elaina Smith is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an intern at The Star. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.