In her 2011 novel “Salvage the Bones,” Jesmyn Ward told the story of an impoverished pregnant teenager whose ramshackle home and dysfunctional family are nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In “Men We Reaped” (the clumsy title comes from a Harriet Tubman quote about war — “it was dead men that we reaped”), she tells the even more painful story of her own childhood in rural Mississippi, interspersed with those of five men, including her brother, Joshua, who died unnatural deaths well before their times.
In doing so, Ward offers another, this time personal, window into the world of impoverished black families in the South.
The lives Ward lays out take divergent paths, but all are shaped by geography, history and the stunting psychology that sprouts like a hard weed in the crucible of poverty and racism.
Jesmyn’s mother, the book’s most heartbreaking character, is also its strongest. She cleans houses until she can barely straighten her back to keep her four children from starving, but her only son will die young and her three daughters, including Jesmyn, struggle to find their way. She is hard-bitten and taciturn, demoralized over her abandonment by Jesmyn’s father, an impractical dreamer who leaves her to father six more children by four women.
Each of the five doomed black men Ward profiles could be the subject of a book of his own, especially her brother, who in 2000, at age 19, was killed by a drunken driver. To casual observers, Joshua was a defiant teen who at his lowest sold crack. Ward helps us understand the pressures he faced and why she loved him so fiercely.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the book is its examination of the gender roles that often take hold among the poor. In one excruciating scene, adolescent Jesmyn hollers at her brother to come help her with chores and faces his hostility: “This is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.”
Then there is Jesmyn’s own trajectory, that of a gifted child from rough circumstances who struggles to succeed in the mostly white, affluent private school she has the good fortune to get into, thanks to her mother’s determination to nurture her intelligence and protect her fragile spirit.
Ward ponders the question of why the snares of poverty, drugs, violence and racism are so enduring, but cautions us that she has no answers, and sometimes, “no words.” Yet her insights are startling and profound, and the more broadly this memoir is read in America, the better off we all will be.
Thank heaven that Ward did not yield to the terrible temptation she describes to draw a razor across her wrist in despair after her brother’s death, but rather sat down and told this awful, necessary story.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune’s West Metro Team leader.