Men We Reaped is another nomination for my university's Common Book next fall. I absolutely loved Salvage the Bones and I was very much looking forwarMen We Reaped is another nomination for my university's Common Book next fall. I absolutely loved Salvage the Bones and I was very much looking forward to reading this memoir by the same author, Jesmyn Ward. I knew a little bit about her background and wanting to know more. Thus, I was happy to see that the book tell the stories of five young black men in Ward's life, interspersed with the story of her own life. The five young black men all died young and from unnatural causes -- accident, murder, suicide -- between 2000 and 2004. One of them, the one who died first, was Ward's younger brother Joshua, who died in 2000. The stories of the men are told in reverse-chronological order, this knowledge informs the entire book.
At first it took me awhile to become immersed in the book. Moving between Ward's story and the stories of the young men was a little frustrating. Honestly, I wanted to learn more about Ward. But soon I got into the rhythm of Ward's storytelling and I couldn't put the book down.
Most of the stories we read about the lives of black people are set in urban areas. Ward and the five young men in her story live in rural Mississippi. They live on the edge financially, but seem less menaced by the police than black people living big cities. Although Ward mentions police harassment, none of the five young men were killed by police. But poverty and lack of opportunity played a major role in their lives.
Ward offers a different take on being black in the U.S. Her own story is disturbing. She attended a mostly-white prep school where the other students of color were wealthy. She eventually left Mississippi for undergraduate and graduate work at Stanford University, employment in New York City, and later graduate school at the University of Michigan. But while all of that was happening, she couldn't resist the pull of home and she visited often. Neither could she resist the pull of alcohol, which is evident but not acknowledged overtly. Ward is a brilliant young writer, but she has struggled to find her place in the world. Toward the end of Men We Reaped she wrote, "Going to an elite college far from home hadn't molded me into an adult, made me confident and self-assured; instead it had confused me, made me timid and unsure of myself. I yearned for the familiar" (page 214).
I think that this book would especially resonate with people who have tried to leave their past behind, but found that it's not easy to do. I think of the low-income, first-generation college students at my university. Ward's experiences may be all too familiar to them. ...more
Southland is one of four books nominated to be my university's Common Book this coming fall. As a member of the selection committee, I'll be reading aSouthland is one of four books nominated to be my university's Common Book this coming fall. As a member of the selection committee, I'll be reading all four. This book is one of my top two favorites, so I read it first. A number of factors put it near the top of my list: It's set in Los Angeles; it deals with racial tension in the city, especially Japanese and black; and it revolves around the unreported and unsolved murders of four black teenage boys during Watts Riots. The riots took place in August 1965 -- 50 years ago this coming summer, when students would be reading the book. Plus, it received numerous awards when it was published in 2003. I also have a more personal interest in Southland. My step-father grew up in South Los Angeles, where most of the book is set, an Armenian living in a racially-mixed neighborhood; he's also the same age as one of the central characters, Frank Sakai, owner of the grocery store where the boys were found frozen to death in a freezer. Southland has been on my "to read" list since I came back to Los Angeles in 2006. Why did I put off reading it for so long? I have no idea. It's wonderful and brilliant.
The book starts slowly but quickly picks up momentum. The narrator, Jackie Ishida, is a third-year law student at UCLA when her grandfather Frank dies unexpectedly in 1995. He has left a mystery behind in a box of mementos at his daughter's house; he willed his store, which was sold decades before, to Curtis Martindale. He also had $38,000 in a shoe box in with the photographs, his Purple Heart from World War II, and many more clues to his life. The money seems to be from the sale of the store, so it should go to Curtis. But who is Curtis Martindale? Why would Frank leave him his grocery store? Jackie's aunt Lois doesn't know and she asks Jackie to investigate. Jackie finds someone who knows part of the answer, a black man named James Lanier, who knew Curtis, Frank, and many of the other players in this drama.
Against this backdrop, Revoyr explores the racial history of South Los Angeles from the years before World War II to 1965, including the settling of Angeles Mesa, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the changing demographics of the neighborhoods. California is obviously not the Deep South, but it's not a paradise of racial harmony either. As one black man observes, "Why do you think they call it Southland?" Beaches were segregated, officially, and stores, restaurants, and neighborhoods, unofficially, for many years.
The structure of the book is extremely effective. Revoyr moves back and forth between 1995 and earlier years, telling the stories of the many characters, Japanese, Japanese-American, and black. Most of the chapters are short, but they are powerful. Characters are sketched quickly and more than one mystery unfolds slowly and powerfully.
This book is still one of my top choices for the Common Book. Its compelling characters and page-turning narrative would keep college students reading, but it's filled with historical details about Los Angeles that resonate today. With the recent news that the policeman who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, will not be prosecuted, protests continue across the country, especially here in L.A. The conditions that led to the Watts Riots are not entirely in the past.