An assured yet scarifying memoir by young, supremely gifted novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011, etc.).
Like the author’s novels, this study of life on the margins—of society, of dry land against the bayou, of law—takes place in the stunning tropical heat of southern Mississippi. Her parents had tried to leave there and make new lives in the freedom, vast horizon and open sky of California: “There were no vistas in Mississippi, only dense thickets of trees all around.” But they had returned, and in the end, the homecoming broke them apart. Ward observes that the small town of her youth was no New Orleans; there was not much to do there, nor many ennobling prospects. So what do people do in such circumstances? They drink, take drugs, reckon with “the dashed dreams of being a pilot or a doctor,” they sink into despair, they die—all things of which Ward writes, achingly, painting portraits of characters such as a young daredevil of a man who proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “I ain’t long for this world,” and another who shrank into bony nothingness as crack cocaine whittled him away. With more gumption than many, Ward battled not only the indifferent odds of rural poverty, but also the endless racism of her classmates in the school she attended on scholarship, where the only other person of color, a Chinese girl, called blacks “scoobies”: “ ‘Like Scooby Doo?’ I said. ‘Like dogs?’ ” Yes, like dogs, and by Ward’s account, it’s a wonder that anyone should have escaped the swamp to make their way in that larger, more spacious world beyond it.
A modern rejoinder to Black Like Me, Beloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear.