Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: The Other Wes Moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the author being interviewed on NPR, I immediately put this book on hold at the library. This young man took an intriguing concept and turned it into a well-written, interesting book.

 The author grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, with his mom and two sisters. His dad died when he was young, and his mom struggled to keep him on the straight and narrow given all the urban pressures of growing up black in the city. She scrimps and saves to get him into private school, but he chafes as he tries to fit in with his neighborhood friends as well as his white bread schoolmates. Finally, after he is at risk of failing school, she sends him to military school after she and her parents make major financial sacrifices. Ultimately, he becomes an accomplished young man as a successful Army officer and Fulbright scholar, intern under Condoleeza Rice, and speaker at the Democratic National Convention on the night Barack Obama accepted his nomination as presidential candidate.

 When Moore was getting ready to go live in South Africa for a semester in college, he learned about another Wes Moore. Moore #2 also grew up black in Baltimore, but his life had a very different outcome. Also growing up with a single mom, Moore #2 landed in prison for armed robbery and murder. His major male influence was his older brother, who tried to steer him away from drug dealing, but all Moore saw was the allure and attraction of easy money and cache his brother received on the street.

 A father in his mid-teens and a grandfather by the time he reached his mid-30s, Moore #2 found drug dealing to be an easy life. He earned his GED and job training in the Job Corps program and nearly seemed to be on his way to earning an honest living, but he found it too difficult to make a living wage and soon returned to drug dealing.

 When Wes Moore started writing this book, his intention was to explore how the two lives could have diverged so far from each other: was it nature or nurture? How could two young men in a similar city, with the same names, end up with such completely different outcomes? In the end, he concludes that it was his mentors--he had more people supporting him and showing him how to be successful. That does seem to be the case. Both of them had loving mothers, but perhaps the author's mother was more engaged and attentive or had more resources to support her (it takes a village, etc.). But beyond their mothers, the author seemed to have more opportunities and a wider community of support.

 One reviewer has posited that it's a class difference. The author's parents had both attended college, while Wes Moore #2's mother had to give up her college dreams because her grant was cut. They also seemed to have slightly more money--not much, but perhaps just enough. Although the author had great intentions, he didn't really delve deeply into what made up the differences between the two lives. I wanted to know more about how Wes Moore #2 went from returning to being a drug pusher to getting involved in armed robbery of a jewelry store. I also wanted more about the friendship between the two men. Each chapter started out by talking about their visits in prison, but they just skimmed the surface.

 So ultimately, this was a good book but it could have been even better. Perhaps it's a reflection of the author's youth and he hasn't lived long enough to understand how he ultimately became a successful young man. It is certainly a telling tale of the challenges young African-American face growing up in the city...and how our society fails these young men. They are swimming upstream, and some of them make it, while others waste away.

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