If you’re looking for reasons to avoid reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, you can start with the tough subject matter: It’s about growing up poor in Mississippi, about racism, and about young black men dying with such regularity that it’s as if society were enacting some effed-up pagan ritual. Or you could avoid the book because it’ll make you care. Ward’s childhood will mess with your heart, just like it messed with hers.
In truth, there’s no good reason to avoid Men We Reaped. This is a lovely book about stuff so painful that Ward must have written it in a kind of fever. The author, who won a National Book Award for her 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, doesn’t just comb her life for tragedy, though. She captures glimpses of the sort of sunny, muddy childhood that should be every kid’s inalienable right. And the young Ward is such a moving character that ultimately you want that sun-dappled life for her more than she even wants it for herself.
The structure of Men We Reaped is ambitious and, frankly, a little bit cuckoo: Ward’s life story moves forward in time, but it’s punctuated by chapters about the deaths of five male friends and loved ones, which move backward. Ward likely did this so she could devote the finale to her struggling brother Joshua, who was run off the road by a (white) drunk driver when he was 19. In any case, the final chapters are so moving you have to avert your eyes, both for the trauma and the tenderness: ”How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South…but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?” A-