Every year my local public library selects a book, usually of some political or social relevance for its “Everybody Reads” program. This year the good people at the Multnomah Country Library chose The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Published in 2010, it’s follows the lives of two different men who happened to share the same first and last names. Growing up fatherless in the same rough section of Baltimore and each having their own respective run ins with the law, the life journeys of these two young African-American men would ultimately take them down two radically different paths. One would eventually emerge from the mean streets a Rhodes Scholar, decorated Army veteran and White House Fellow. The other would find himself serving a life sentence for murder. The story of how this happened, as told by one of the Wes Moores, makes for an inspiring, well-written and engaging book.
One part memoir and one part investigative reporting, The Other Wes Moore begins with the book’s narrator visiting his namesake in prison. From there we learn the tragic details of their respective fractured lives. We see the one life, despite crushing odd, soar to successful heights while one plummets into the abyss of drugs, poverty, premature fatherhood, violence and crime. One man’s life becomes a story to inspire us all while the life of the other becomes a poster child for inner city hopelessness.
I liked the book for many reasons, including its ability to promote dialog and debate regarding issues related to race, poverty, crime and personal responsibility. The author, I think to his credit, does little if any pontificating on why he succeeded while the other Wes Moore did not. But if one compares the lives of the two men one can point to a number of possible factors such as a supportive extended family, respect for education, aversion to illegal drug use and avoidance of premature and irresponsible fatherhood. While not the prettiest solution to a young man’s youthful rebellion, his mother’s decision to send him to a stern and uncompromising military academy undoubtably served to straightened him out, even if Wes Moore provides few if any details of just how it changed his life for the better.
I must say I enjoyed reading The Other Wes Moore and burned through it in only a few days. Based on my impressions if do you end up reading it, there’s a host of other books I might also recommend. Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here is one of the best portraits of inner city poverty I’ve ever read. For a short book which does a fine job telling a story of young man’s descent into the depths of death row, check out A Saint of Death Row by one of my favorite authors James Cahill. In the realm of fiction, I’d also recommend another Multnomah County Library Everybody Reads selection A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. Lastly, to see what makes some people successful and some not, I would check out Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best seller Outliers.