At the end of each year, we put together a "Staff Picks" list at the Urbana Free Library, where staff members from across the library contribute lists of the best books they read over the previous year.
It's a varied list, as library employees have wide-ranging reading interests. It is fun to see what other people enjoyed, and the list is a great way to get recommendations. In compiling my list this year, I realized that I had not yet written anything here about one my favorite books of 2013: "Men We Reaped: a Memoir" by Jesmyn Ward.
Ward's memoir is both beautifully written and profoundly affecting, but it is daunting to write about because it tackles serious topics that are difficult and often very sad. It is the type of book that sometimes compels people to ask me how I can read such depressing books.
Delving into Ward's story detailing the lasting effects of poverty, racism and tragedy on her community is not pleasant escapism, but it is a moving and vital look into struggles that many of us never have to experience.
Ward, a novelist who won the National Book Award in 2011 for her novel "Salvage the Bones," grew up in DeLisle, a small community in rural Mississippi near the Gulf Coast. In "Men We Reaped," she tells the story of her family and her hometown by focusing on five young men she was close to, four friends and her treasured younger brother, who all died within four years of each other.
Ward organizes her book around these men and their stories and intertwines her own story of growing up in DeLisle as she struggles to understand the forces that lead to hopelessness and tragedy for so many.
Ward grew up in a family where her mother worked long hours as a maid and her father was in and out of her life, not to be relied on for support. She and her siblings had a tight bond, caring for each other while their mother worked. Ward was a bookish child who found it hard to fit in, first getting bullied in public school and then experiencing racism at private school.
While she had the opportunity to leave home to pursue her education and dream of being a writer, she watched helplessly as many of her friends and family members in DeLisle succumbed to the risks of poverty: addiction, violence, crime and depression.
Eventually, unable to feel truly herself anywhere else, she moved back shortly before Hurricane Katrina brought more heartbreak to her hometown.
Ward's story is full of anger, grief and love. She realizes to what degree the deaths of the men she loved were caused by the constraints of where they were born and who they were. Heartbroken over the loss of her friends and her brother, she is furious at the racism and poverty that so restrict the opportunities for those growing up poor in towns like DeLisle, especially young black men.
The palpable emotion in her writing makes this a raw and powerful story. Shining through all the hardship is her conflicted love for her hometown, for Mississippi and for her family, friends and communities struggling to survive.
While reading "Men We Reaped" is emotionally trying at times, the knowledge and perspective gained from it is more than worth it. I know Ward's powerful and very personal illustration of the deep inequalities facing our country will stay with me.
Books like this one force us to confront experiences and challenges outside of those we may face in our own lives, and have the power to increase our understanding, compassion and empathy.
The Urbana Free Library "Staff Picks" for 2013 will be on display on the first floor of the library through the holidays. Go check them out!
Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.