Part of what makes Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward so moving, beyond the awful personal loss of five people close to her in four years, is the haunting notion that the small town closeness she describes is what was lost when so many black families left the South during the Great Migration. What the “migrants” gained was a freedom to pursue dreams that gave birth to incredible American talent, including Toni Morrison and Miles Davis. But what was lost was a sense of closeness that is presented so tenderly by Ward, winner of the National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones.
So many generations after the Great Migration, it’s apparent that whatever those who stayed behind may have missed in terms of opportunities, they have not missed out on the urban miseries of the drug trade and the “war on drugs” that has ravaged so many inner cities. Writing about the small Mississippi town of DeLisle and her own family, Ward lends an intimacy to the devastation, but what she writes about is much broader—the scourge of drugs and despair across the US, in large cities and small towns, in families from a range of incomes, but unfortunately mostly tied to race and poverty. Ward writes with a tenderness that doesn’t sentimentalize or make excuses, but offers real portraits of people who are often stereotyped.
In her recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Ward’s soft voice is as poignant as her writing. A natural storyteller, she explores the trite notion that we aren’t promised tomorrow and laments the loss of a brother, keeper of the family stories, and worries about losing the past. When I read her book and listened to her interview, I thought about the irony that the root culture and incredible closeness of the rural southern town is no protection from the kind of despair generally associated with northern inner cities. Despite education and obvious talent, she’d had her own bouts of recklessness and depression, including suicide attempts that lead her to tattoo her brother’s name on her wrists as memorial and preventative.
In contrast to “the warmth of other suns” that drove so many from the South, described so wonderfully by Isabel Wilkerson in her book of the same title, there was a warmth left behind in the closeness of the southern small towns that unfortunately hasn’t shielded them from the plagues of drugs and poverty.