I first read Jesmyn Ward around the time of my A Levels. My parents had gone to hear her speak at a literary event and came home full of praise and copies of Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones. I read the latter amidst the tense fog of A Levels and university acceptance, did not appreciate it as much as I should have and did not think too much more about it.
Fast forward a couple of years to my first term of my final year of university. I took a module called ‘Harlem and After’ that studied African American literature from the 1920s until the present day. The module awakened an academic interest in me that had always been quietly simmering away and Salvage the Bones played a pivotal role in that. For a little context, I was not in a particularly healthy state of mind and one sleepless night during the week I was due to read Salvage the Bones, I took it up and read until the small hours. I think I finished the whole thing in a couple of days.
Needless to say, Ward’s novel helped me, both academically and mentally. I wrote my final essay for the module on it and, whilst I didn’t get quite as high a mark as I wanted, I was deeply fascinated by analysing and writing about such an intelligent work of literature. This was confirmation, to my mind, that this was the area of literature I should be dedicating myself to.
I digress. As you can see in the photo above, my parents (Margaret is my mum’s name), also brought home a signed copy of Men We Reaped when they heard Ward talk. I finally sat down to read it a couple of weeks ago.
It will probably be no surprise that I loved it. I have nothing but admiration for Ward’s ability to inspire empathy about a part of America, her part of America, that is so ignored. She writes with such beauty about her home and the people she is surrounded that you question why so many people ignore or revile the poor, black American South. Ward reminds us that their story is America’s story, by drawing us into her community’s lives and tragedies, as if we are right there with them in the smothering Mississippi heat.
On a final note, the best comes last in Men We Reaped. The final chapter is such a whirl of beauty, emotion and hope that I can only finish by leaving you with the promise of its greatness.