Author: Jesmyn Ward
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Forget that Jesmyn Ward wrote Salvage the Bones, the National Book Award-winning story of a down-on-their-luck Mississippi family who face insurmountable odds in the days leading to Hurricane Katrina. Forget that it is perhaps one of the most important novels to be released in the last ten years, and that Ward is a fierce talent: sharp-toothed and affecting, her words cut deep and often stay with you even after you’ve finished the book. It's a kind of prose that chronicles the human condition in a bleak and beautiful way, not unlike ZZ Packer who unraveled a world of innocence and loss and strong-fisted love in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, her debut short story collection.
You can imagine, then, that Ward’s 2013 release, Men We Reaped, about five men in her life that die within a four-year time span, one of whom is her younger brother, is a book that demands your attention. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, and Joshua: these are the names, the men, the lives deserving of a story.
Part memoir, half of the book details Ward’s formative, teen, and post-college years, which helps provide greater context to what ultimately contributes to each man’s eventual demise. As it is for most people, her relationship with home (DeLisle, MS) is a complicated one, and only becomes more fraught in the wake of each man’s sudden passing. “How could I know then that this would be my life,” Ward writes, “yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”
If William Faulkner, often considered Mississipi’s foremost writer, was able to create disjointed realities and vivid characters with sinewy prose, then Ward has accomplished the exact opposite to similar effect: These are stories populated by people on the margins, black and brown young men and women who have, as Alice Walker so plainly put it once, “fought and kicked and fasted and prayed and cursed and cried” themselves to the point of existing. These are stories about the forgotten, the poor, the abandoned. Where Faulkner created out of the abstract, Ward creates out of the definite. “This is before Ronald, before C.J,” she writes in the book’s final chapters, “This is before Demond, before Rog. This is where my two stories come together. This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”
Laid bare, this is a book of deep-rooted affirmations. These men lived. These men were loved. These men were hated. These men did bad things to good people. These men were proud. These men were flawed. These men were not always men. These men were ugly. These men were beautiful. This is their story. —Jason Parham