For the second time, Jesmyn Ward will close out another year at Door Stop Novels with one of her works. Last December, 2016 ended with a post on The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about race, edited and put together by Ward. This year, it is her memoir from 2013, Men We Reaped.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, or memoir, detailing Ward's early life growing up in Mississippi. More specifically, Ward focuses on what it was like growing up poor and black in America's south. As she tells the story of her childhood, she also talks about the death of five black men from her community, one of which is her only brother, Joshua. The deaths, however, are told in reverse order, beginning with the most recent, and going back to the first in 2000, which is where she ends her own story. Switching between the two, Ward gives the reader a detailed look into life in De Lisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi, starting from the early 1970s, all the way to 2004. There are even occasional stories that take place in New Orleans. Also, Ward manages to touch a little bit on her time in Michigan, where she went to college, and also New York City, where she would eventually land a job after graduation. Men We Reaped is not the usual, straight forward memoir in that it is not all about the narrator. She makes it a point to have the men she talks about be the focus of their own individual stories. It is about more than just her life in the south, but that of all poor black people who find themselves straining against systemic racism, economic inequality, social injustice, and the fracturing of families that seems to be rooted in our history in this country.
My Verdict: Ward does exactly what could be expected from a memoir: she tells her story and she tells it honestly. Events and revelations are not sugar-coated, and they are not ignored or conveniently glossed over. Instead they are confronted head-on, but not in a way where the author is clearly hoping to see the reader flinch...though you probably will. Ward tells the story with the confidence, and also the heartache, that comes with knowing something needs to be said, even though there will be pain on both sides. But that pain has been a part of her experience, and sharing the stories is a difficult but hopeful step towards change.
Favorite Moment: When Ward stands up to a group of boys at her predominantly white school who have made comments/jokes about lynching.
Favorite Quote: The title comes from a quote by Harriet Tubman: "We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."
Recommended Reading: Ward's Salvage the Bones received the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. It is the story of a poor black family in Mississippi that culminates in the terror that was Hurricane Katrina.