Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward's novel about a pregnant 15-year-old girl in an impoverished Mississippi bayou town in the days before Hurricane Katrina, won the 2011 National Book Award. In Men We Reaped, Ward turns to memoir to understand the seemingly unrelated recent deaths of her brother and four other young men from her close-knit community. The result is a vivid and searing look at the legacy of racism in the U.S. by a writer with exceptional narrative gifts.

Ward tells each man's story in chapters woven into her larger narrative. She cuts back and forth in time as she traces her parents' lives growing up in DeLisle, Miss., trying for a better life in California, then returning to dwindling choices and a fracturing family. We share her grief at the loss of these young men, and understand why she loved each of them: Rog, Demond, CJ, Ronald and, finally, her brother, Joshua, killed by a drunk driver.

Ward ultimately sees these deaths not as random, but as the consequence of racism so ingrained it is almost unremarkable, though its expression is not. When options become nonexistent, depression, recklessness and the abuse of drugs and alcohol can seem reasonable responses; when there is no margin for error, any risk is magnified.

Men We Reaped is a stunning look at racism, the people it marginalizes and how we are all implicated. It is loving and raw, full of grief and anger, personal and objective, shocking and inevitable. Ward stands alongside writers like Edwige Danticat, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou as a gifted chronicler of the crucible of an inequitable culture. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

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