The memoir you might expect Jesmyn Ward to write would sound something like this:
Black girl from poverty-stricken, small-town Mississippi gets a break when her mother’s employer pays her tuition to an elite private school. She flourishes, goes on to get a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, then wins a prestigious literary fellowship at Stanford. She comes home, toughs out a few years in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina before her second novel (“Salvage the Bones”) wins the National Book Award for fiction. Triumph over adversity, all by age 34, huzzah, huzzah, etc.
This is not that book.
“Men We Reaped” is a somber, slender book about grief and mourning and the blight of racism and poverty in DeLisle, Miss., Ward’s hometown, just off the Gulf Coast. Her brother, Joshua, was killed by a drunk driver, a sister’s boyfriend was killed in another car wreck, a friend was shot, another died of a heart attack after using drugs, another committed suicide. Five young black men she knew, dead, in four years — thus the title, taken from a Harriet Tubman quote. She interweaves these stories with her childhood history, moving from house to house to trailer, mom and dad and four kids, always seeming to be on the edge of collapse.
“Men We Reaped” is an often beautiful book, perhaps most moving when Ward writes about growing up in food-stamp-level poverty and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. It also puts the full beam of Ward’s literary vision on the lives and expectations of rural black people in the Deep South, perhaps one of the smallest bookshelves in the library. In tone and mood, it seems more akin to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the lyrical film about a remote Gulf Coast community nearly wiped out by a massive hurricane, than it is to, say, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” Anne Moody’s classic autobiography about being young and black in an earlier era in the Magnolia State. But there’s no magical realism here, no beautiful dreams to offset a grim reality. In Ward’s telling, she and her youthful compatriots get high and get wasted, often. Dropping out of high school among her set was common, she writes. Ambition and upward mobility seem a cruel joke.
The devil she sees here is the relentless weight of racism, and she is forceful in decrying it. She writes early on that by telling this story she hopes to better understand “why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and private responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live.”
Her tale begins with her town and her parents. DeLisle started life as a community called Wolf Town, named for its proximity to the Wolf River. She favors this moniker: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery.” Her parents each have ancestors so pale as to be near-white. Jesmyn — nicknamed Mimi — was born when her mother was 18 and her father 20. They were living in Oakland, Calif., at the time, and Jesmyn weighed just two pounds and four ounces at birth.
They returned home when she was 3, moving around the tiny communities dotting the Coast and its watery bayous. It’s that land of sand and scrub and pine trees south of the I-10 — not the fertile Delta or Faulkner’s hill country. The communities here can seem more akin to southern Louisiana than what people up north picture when they think of Mississippi.
She’s great at describing her familial migration and disintegration — her tact is more literary than journalistic, and it works. In fact, I wish the book hewed more to this narrative arc. But what’s pressing on her mind is the senseless deaths of Roger, Demond, Charles, Ronald and her younger brother, Joshua. By book’s end, she has not found peace about their loss. “We are never free from grief,” she writes. “We are never free from the feeling that we have failed. We are never free from self-loathing. We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess. Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus. . . . I carry the weight of grief even as I struggle to live. I understand what it feels like to be under siege.”
Her concluding thoughts echo the roots of DeLisle, of Wolf Town, the primordial beginnings of this strange and violent place, and perhaps its future: “We love each other fiercely,” she writes, “while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”
Tucker is a Washington Post staff writer who grew up in rural Mississippi. His memoir, “Love in the Driest Season,” was published in 2004. His novel “The Ways of the Dead” will be published next summer.
MEN WE REAPED
By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury. 256 pp. $26