We review two books today, both set in very specific communities overshadowed by poverty and tragedy.
Let’s start with Men We Reaped, a memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s fierce, poetic debut novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award and a 2012 Alex Award. It follows a pregnant teenage girl and her family through Hurricane Katrina. Ward’s memoir is also “set” in rural Mississippi. Chapter by chapter, Ward describes the loss of five young men in her life, including her brother. All due to racism, drugs, and poverty in their community.
Men We Reaped brought to mind Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat, which led me to pair it with Danticat’s new novel, Claire of the Sea Light. One poor seaside Haiti community is brought to light through the story of a 7-year-old girl. I think our reviewer hits the nail on the head by recommending this to teens intrigued by novels set in other countries. Their curiosity about another culture will help to propel them through this beautifully written novel.
Adult/High School–Ward lost five young men in four years, one of them her only brother. Their deaths were violent, a result of living poor, black, and male in the South. Just as she is not the same after these experiences, readers aren’t the same after perusing her book. Indeed, her words are sensual: one can smell, taste, and feel what it’s like to grow up in poverty in Mississippi. She shares how a person survives, individually and collectively. Ward takes readers on a richly nuanced, visceral journey that enlightens and devastates as she was devastated. There are gems throughout: “We crawled through time like roaches through the linings of walls, the neglected spaces and hours, foolishly happy that we were still alive even as we did everything to die.” Teens will not only want to read this book, but they will also want to have it on their shelves to revisit. The truth within is profound, illuminating what racism, poverty, social class, and self-hatred actually mean day-to-day, and how they impact men, women, family, society, and relationships. Ward’s memoir distills complexity; its structure both enhances her story and provides layers of meaning. The author alternates chapters of her growing-up years with the stories of the five men who died. There is an exquisite chapter about her father that brings the past and present together. Gorgeous, brutal, real, shining: dare it be said, perfect.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Adult/High School–Danticat’s novel is a beautifully written portrayal of Haiti and its people. The day Claire Limyé Lanmé turned seven, a fisherman drowned and her father tried to give her away–again. This sets the tone for a book that is filled with tragedy. The story goes back in time to tell about Claire’s mother, the mayor, the fabric-shop owner, Claire’s father, and other citizens of a poor Haitian city and the tragedies they faced, including death, corruption, gangs, infidelity, and poverty. And while their stories seem separate, they all come together. A sense of hope and resilience are what keep not only the characters going, but also the novel. Danticat’s writing, peppered with Creole phrases and sentences, is lyrical and evocative. Teens who appreciate a look at another culture will like this readable portrayal of the country. It is also a good book to recommend to fans of Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury, 2012), also set in Haiti.–Sarah Debraski, formerly at Somerset County Library System, NJ