Although I don't typically choose my reading material because it's been included on those yearly "best of" lists, I saw Jesmyn Ward's title Men We Reaped: A Memoir on so many of last year's lists that I felt compelled to check it out. Ward's novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2010, and I always wanted to read that one, but never got around to it.
In this short and heartbreaking memoir, Ward explores her relationships with and the deaths of five young black men to whom she was close, including her younger brother. It's a memoir written in two parts, interspersed, with half of the chapters moving forward in time and the others moving back. In the chapters moving forward, Ward explores her own childhood and the lives of those in her tightly knit small-town Mississippi community (in chapters with headings like "We Are Born, 1977-1984" and "We Are Wounded, 1984-1987"), in those moving back she details the lives and deaths of the five men, starting with her friend Roger Eric Daniels III, who died in 2004, and ending with her brother Joshua, who died in 2000.
As you can probably guess, it's a heartbreaking book. Bless her, Ward is not really a melodramatic writer, but how on earth do you write about the deaths of five young men in four years and have it NOT be depressing? And it's not like the death stories are the only sad ones--there's also the stories of Ward's parents' rocky relationship, her single mother's unending work and jobs to keep she and her siblings fed, and tales of poverty and of drug and alcohol abuse galore.
Ward also provides the small details of what makes her community, to the extent that it is, cohesive--the funeral t-shirts they make up (for funerals families contribute pictures to be printed on t-shirts, that are then sold, just to cover costs, to other mourners); driving around her small town with friends; their practice of taking picnics to cemeteries when they visit graves to "feed the dead." For very personal reasons--including the death of my own brother at too young an age--as I was finishing this one up, it actually made me tear up a bit. And books hardly EVER do that to me--I am not a sentimental reader and I do not look for weepies in either my fiction or my nonfiction.
It just so happened that I was finishing this one up at the breakfast table. CRjr likes to take his time with his Cheerios and his fruit, so I sometimes sneak in a chapter or two of my current book while he eats. So when I closed the book and looked up, sad, thinking about the cultural divides in our country and the death of my own brother, CRjr looked over and saw my tears. And this is what he said:
"That's a sad book, Mama."
And I said yes, it was, but it was a good book. And then he said, "Mama needs a new book."
Well, true enough. But I'll be thinking about this one for a while yet.