The memoir is sometimes derided as a navel-gazing form, but not the way Jesmyn Ward writes it. In “Men We Reaped,” now available as an audiobook, Ward reckons with the ways in which a person’s story is shaped in large part by the stories of other people who pass through a person’s life, and also by the place that forms the context for these lives. It is a memoir, in other words, of community, of time, and perhaps most of all the wounds we carry from loss, not least because the book finds its center in its memories of five dead men in four years, all young, one of whom was Ward’s own younger brother Joshua.
The book’s opening section, “We Are in Wolf Town,” begins with the history of her hometown of DeLisle, Miss., a place near the Gulf Coast whose early story is first imagined through photographs of Ward’s ancestors, some of whom seem “so light-skinned as to look white, and some are so dark the lines of the nose, a mouth, look silver in the black-and-white picture ... None of them smile. My grandmother Dorothy tells me stories about them, says some of them were Haitian, that others were Choctaw, said they spoke French, that they came from New Orleans or a nebulous elsewhere, searching for land and space, and they stopped here.”
DeLisle came to be known as “Wolf Town,” perhaps because of the Wolf River, “brown and lazy,” which runs through the center of town, or perhaps, as Ward writes, because “Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” This is beautiful writing, voiced beautifully, by veteran audiobook narrator Cherise Boothe, who also narrated the Recorded Books edition of Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel “Salvage the Bones.” This beauty offsets the terrible ugliness of history and circumstance, because for Ward, the history of DeLisle is the first movement in a terrible pattern.
“Men’s bodies litter my family history,” she writes. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts. In death, they transcend the circumstances of this place that I love and hate all at once and become supernatural. Sometimes, when I think of all the men who’ve died early in my family over the generations, I think DeLisle is the wolf.”
A terrible litany of death and sorrow follows. Two car wrecks, a shooting, a drug-induced heart attack, a tragic suicide. At the heart of all of it – the preconditions that sit at the early end of the cause-and-effect chain that leads to these unnatural deaths – is the twinned stories of racism and lack of economic opportunity, and Ward is direct in addressing them both, in how “public and private responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.” And then, in a sentence that falls heavily on the reader: “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live.”
Some of the answers are implicit, but these questions of life and death, of the circumstances of birth and family, of grief and its outcomes, are given only to answers of the most incomplete varieties, and by the end of “Men We Reaped,” Ward, in the tradition of thousands of years of poets who precede her, is left to respond in the lyrical register, the rhetorically elevated and imagistic place we go when words in their inadequacy have begun to fail us.
In the end, she writes of “this future where I will surely lose more, and write the narrative that remembers, write the narrative that says: Hello. We are here. Listen. It is not easy. I continue. Sometimes I am tireless. And sometimes I am weary. And when I am weary, I imagine this: After the moment I die, I will find myself standing on the side of a long, pitted asphalt road flanked on both sides by murmuring pine trees, under a hot, high sun in a blue sky. In the distance, I will hear a rumbling thumping, a bass beat. A dull blue ’85 Cutlass will cut the horizon, come growling down the road before stopping in front of me. It will stop so quickly the gravel will crunch, and then my brother will swing the passenger door wide with one long tattooed arm, the other on the wheel. He will look at me with his large dark liquid eyes, his face soft. He will know that I have been waiting. He will say: Come. Come take a ride with me. I will, brother. I’m here.”