Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates

For some reason, I've always found myself oddly fascinated by stories where two close or similar characters end up on wildly different paths in life, despite starting out in more or less the same place. Two siblings or childhood friends, close as can be, and then of them becomes evil! I know it sounds kind of childish and cliched to put it like that, but something just interests me about tracing two paths from a single starting point and looking at where, why, and how they diverge.

Generally, those kinds of stories tend to be works of fiction... so needless to say, I was intrigued when I first heard about the true story told in this book.

The premise: two unrelated african-american boys, both of whom happen to be named Wes Moore, grow up around the same time in the same area of Baltimore. Both are raised by their mothers in single-parent households, both families struggle financially, but at some point the two Weses’ lives diverge dramatically. Despite similar roots, one of these Wes Moores -- the author -- goes on to become a Rhodes Scholar. The other Wes Moore ends up in jail, serving a life sentence for murder.

The book reads more or less like a novel, flipping randomly between depictions of the lives of Scholar-Wes and Murder-Wes through various stages in their childhoods. The narrative is also interspersed with italicized conversations between the two Weses as adults, one visiting the other in prison.

In the beginning, the differences between the two Weses are intriguingly subtle. For instance, although both grew up without fathers in their lives, Scholar-Wes lost his father to death from a sudden illness, while Murder-Wes had an alcoholic father who simply wasn’t interested in his son. Both Weses dabble in lawlessness, but Scholar-Wes didn’t go much farther than graffiti while Murder-Wes was drawn ever deeper into drug trafficking and gang life.

Then about halfway through the book, while Murder-Wes’s mother can only watch helplessly as her son drifts further away, Scholar-Wes’s mother gets fed up with his increasingly unruly behavior and ships him off to military school. She was able to scrimp together the resources to pay the first year’s tuition by appealing to family members, and through the generosity of her parents, who took out a second mortgage on their home.

And his mother's sacrifices pay off: Scholar-Wes excels in military school, earning scholarships and rising as a student leader. Around this point in the book, my interest faded a little. The dramatically different outcomes for the two Wes Moores didn't seem like much of a mystery anymore.

But the weird thing was how the author didn’t really seem to acknowledge this as the most significant point of divergence between himself and the other Wes Moore -- indeed, he seemed almost determined to downplay it. For instance, toward the end of the book he writes:

And when I finish my story, the question that comes up the most is the one that initiated this quest: “What made the difference?”

And the truth is that I don’t know. The answer is elusive. People are so wildly different, and it’s hard to know when genetics or environment or just bad luck is decisive.

In fairness, he does eventually get around to some muddled point about strong mentors and responsibility and so forth... But even so, the passage above struck me as almost disingenuous. How could he not realize how the opportunities and discipline he had -- and the other Wes Moore didn't -- had profoundly shaped his life and future?

In many ways, this book felt unfinished. It was short, with a mere 180 pages of actual content padded with 50 or so pages of filler material on organizations dedicated to helping troubled youth. And somewhere toward the middle, it seemed to me to become more rushed and less attentive to detail, as though the author started running out of time and just wanted to finish it.

Above all, it seemed like Wes Moore the author could have made a much stronger, much more substantive statement about the tragic reality of people in the other Wes Moore’s situation, and what we as a society might do to remedy it.

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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