In 2000, Jesmyn Ward's 19-year-old brother, Joshua, was driving home from work when a drunk driver plowed into his car, killing him.
Ward was so grief-stricken that she fantasized about killing herself – tattooing her brother's name on one wrist and his handwriting on the other as protection, because she knew she would never cut through them.
“My first stories were attempts to honor my brother,” she said in her speech accepting the National Book Award in 2011 for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.”
Over the next four years, Ward lost four more young men dear to her – three in 2004 alone.
“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, seemingly unrelated deaths,” she writes in her powerful, wrenching memoir, Men We Reaped. Her cousin C.J. was killed when a train hit his car. Her friend Demond was murdered in his front yard after agreeing to testify in a drug-related case; her friend Ronald committed suicide; and her friend Roger died of a heart attack, likely brought on by drug use.
“Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus,” she writes.
To Ward, the deaths are all inextricably linked to growing up poor and Black in DeLisle, Miss., a place nicknamed Wolf Town by its early settlers. The novel takes its title from a quote by Harriet Tubman: “We heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
Ward alternates elegies for each of her loved ones, working backward in time from the date of their deaths, with a memoir of growing up as the oldest child of a charming, faithless father and an overworked, dour mother.
While her father practices martial arts, rides his motorcycle, and trains pit bulls for fighting – one of which nearly kills Ward when she is six – her mother cleans rich people's houses until she's exhausted, then comes home to care for four kids.
“Remaining faithful to my mother required a kind of moral discipline he’d never developed,” she writes of her father, whom she clearly loves, “since it was constantly undermined by his natural gifts: his charm, his sense of humor, his uncommon beauty.”
After several attempts to reconcile, her parents' marriage eventually stutters to a halt, but not without emotional costs for the children.
During one fight, Ward writes, she and her brother hid out on the porch. “I hugged my brother in the dark. I was his big sister. My mother and father yelled at each other in the house, and as the bats fluttered overhead, dry as paper, I heard the sound of glass shattering, of wood splintering, of things breaking.”
After Ward's parents divorce, her mother works even harder but becomes grim in her desperation. For a period of months, if one child does something wrong, all of them are whipped, Ward writes. Then her mother switches to psychological threats, saying she's going to put all four up for adoption.
“Sometimes I think that my mother felt that if she relaxed even a tiny bit, the world she'd so laboriously built to sustain us would fall apart,” Ward writes.
Ward's mom expresses her love through food: huge pots of homemade gumbo, roasts, pork chops and mashed potatoes, cornbread, and German chocolate cakes and yellow cakes hand-decorated with vines and flowers.
She saves enough money to buy a parcel of land and clears it herself with machetes and chainsaws. Ward's grandmother got a job in a pharmaceutical plant that said it wanted a woman who could work as hard as a man (a bitter piece of irony after even a cursory glance at Ward's family). “My grandmother got that factory job after a man saw her lift and carry a full-grown hog on her shoulders,” Ward writes.
Ward's mom also manages to get a scholarship for her bright, bookish girl to a private school. Ward ended up going to Stanford and then on to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for her M.F.A. Being the only black girl among wealthy Southern kids “who wore entitlement like another piece of clothing” made life a daily misery, Ward writes. She is the only student who lived in a trailer and had to go in school in the hand-me-downs of students who treat her with contempt and sometimes blatant racism.
But there was no scholarship for Joshua or Ward's two younger sisters. Joshua drops out of high school and starts working, occasionally supplementing his earnings by dealing drugs. Ward writes powerfully about the daily toll of racism on herself, her siblings, and her friends.
“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing,” she writes. “We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
In the memoir, time meets up and stops at her brother's death.
“To say this is difficult is understatement; telling this story is the hardest thing I've ever done,” Ward writes. “But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.”
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.