Jesmyn Ward takes the title for her book, Men We Reaped, from a Harriet Tubman quote, “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
This hard-to-read memoir, beautifully written, intersperses her own story with the violent deaths of five young men important in her life. The first to die, but the last in her narrative, is her brother Joshua. Early in the book, she foreshadows what is to come even in games with her brother, “Our play taught us that violence could be sudden, unpredictable, and severe, soon.” Her matriarchal society had few male role models for the boys. In a world fraught with violence, there was an oddity if one found a child who lived with both parents.
From an early age, Jesmyn found escape in words. Books introduced her to girls strong enough to slay dragons and build secret gardens. She developed a game with her brother and cousin modeled after The Bridge to Terebithia. Naturally, she was the leader. Her education came as a scholarship student in an Episcopalian private school, provided by the wealthy families where her mother worked as a maid. The benefit of a quality education was tempered by the cultural gulf caused by her economic status and her being the only Black girl in her classes for much of the time.
Given the opportunity, she left Mississippi behind. Yet the pull of family and home remained with her as new horizons opened. That life informs both Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones, her novel that won the 2011National Book Award.
I found her writing heart-wrenching, but beautiful. Those in our area would do well to come hear her speak at the Thad Cochran Center on the USM campus at 6:30 on Tuesday night March 18, 2014. A reception and book-signing will follow. I take a bit of pride in being a member of the board of the Friends of University Libraries, one of the sponsors, which began the initiative for this free event open to the public. I’m anticipating that her spoken words will be as beautiful as her written ones.