There are two men with the same name. One is a Rhodes scholar and Johns Hopkins graduate who was a speaker at the 2008 Democratic Convention. The other is a former drug dealer, convicted of murdering a police officer and serving a life sentence at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland.
Both men were profiled in the Baltimore Sun for their deeds, which is where The Other Wes Moore begins. Author Wes Moore happened to hear about an ongoing story in the local paper about an armed robbery that ended in the murder of a police officer – a father of five kids – and was struck by the fact that one of the robbers shared his name. Compelled by the odd coincidence, he eventually sent a letter to the other Wes Moore, who by that time had begun serving his life sentence.
“The Other Wes Moore” is the result of that letter and subsequent correspondence between the two men, each eager to meet his namesake and to try to understand how their lives – similar at many turns – became such polar opposites.
Moore interviewed family members, educators, and friends of both men to enhance his narrative, which is organized as coming-of-age snapshots that offer glimpses into the circumstances of both lives. He is earnest but not naive as he challenges the oft-repeated theories of nature vs. nurture and the perceived advantages or disadvantages of race and class.
The stories of both Moores are set against the backdrops – in Baltimore and in the Bronx – of project low-rises, corner boys, and troubled public education systems. Both endured poverty at various times in their lives, both were fatherless, and both attended schools where teachers felt the tragic impact of the crack cocaine epidemic on the lives of their students. It is simultaneously fascinating and heartbreaking to read how certain incidents played large – and sometimes irreversible – roles in both men’s lives. While one Moore, for instance, had an experience with a job training program that helped to restore his self-esteem at a vulnerable time, the other Moore was busy dodging bullets and drug dealers on his way to school – only to get there to rack up suspensions and detentions in an effort to appear “down” on the streets. Both men spent time in the back of a police car, but decisions made for them and by them eventually determined that one would never be free of the handcuffs.
As riveting as the snapshots are – occasionally reading like a grim variation of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story – the narrative falls short on other details, including the author’s own marriage and the other Moore’s family involvement. (He has four children). Moore paints touching portraits of both mothers and the understanding of what they wanted for themselves and their children ratchets up the tension as the narrative moves forward to confirm the tragic fact that those dreams don’t necessarily matter in the face of the life of the streets.
The writing style is straightforward and sympathetic though, to his credit, Moore the author makes it clear that he doesn’t condone the other Moore’s actions or make excuses for the murder of Officer Bruce Prothero. The imprisoned Moore continues to deny his involvement, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.
Both men lament the impact that fatherlessness had on their lives: One watched his father die and the other’s father was an alcoholic who barely recognized his son on the few occasions that he saw him. The author says that he “searched for ways to fill that hole, sometimes in places I shouldn’t have looked. I made some tremendous mistakes along the way.” However, as readers we are not told what those mistakes were, whereas substantially more of the other Moore’s mistakes are laid bare.
The final chapter of the book is a directory of organizations that assist at-risk youth. Moore doesn’t strip away the humanity of those who’ve made mistakes, stressing that people are so different that, “it’s hard to know when genetics or environment or just bad luck is decisive.” But he feels strongly that good mentors are crucial to help young people make better life decisions.
Everyone makes choices; that’s the only concrete conclusion Moore is able to draw. And even though his namesake is in prison, Moore writes with hope about his situation: He has converted to Islam and is trying to build a relationship with his children, albeit behind bars.
Perhaps the most moving passage in “The Other Wes Moore” is also its tag line: “The chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.” Moore asks that readers not underestimate the role of the many variables in the lives of individuals. But he also pleads with them not to discount the power of self-determination.
Stacie Williams is a Monitor intern and a candidate for a masters degree in library science at Simmons College.