(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case. This disclaimer doesn’t matter so much in this review because from the very beginning of this book, we know that one Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes Scholar and another Wes Moore is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail. But I will discuss details from the book, just so you know.)
This is a story about two men, both named Wes Moore who live just a few streets away from each other in Baltimore, Maryland. They both grow up relatively poor, without fathers, in less than ideal neighborhoods. One Wes Moore goes on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated veteran, White House Fellow, world traveler, and a successful writer/businessman. The other Wes Moore lands in jail, convicted of murder and sentenced to confinement for life.
Of course the questions beg, “How could this happen? What was the difference?”
I won’t say that this is the most eloquent story that I have read but it is perhaps one of the most important. I don’t think I have ever felt the full weight of my parenting responsibilities as strongly as when I turned the last page.
This book is about Wes Moore and his literary twin but it also about their mothers – the decisions they did and didn’t make. It is about what they did and didn’t do because they wanted desperately to believe in their sons. And it is about what they refused to believe or were too tired to believe, ultimately understanding that their children were not innocent bystanders in their own destinies.
The author of this book is the success story – he beat the odds. But some might argue the odds were in his favor. He had parents who had gone to college and expected him to go to college. He had tremendous support from his grandparents and his mother was willing to work her arse off to make sure her son went to a school that offered him a chance to succeed. And finally, he accepted that a life without fear was a life worth working for. He doesn’t look over his shoulder to make sure the shadows of his mistakes don’t eat him alive.
I would also argue that it was critical that his mother refused to believe that her son could do no wrong. She watched for warning signs and paid attention to them. When Wes seemed to be getting lost in the streets, his mother shipped him off to military school. This decision infuriated Wes and he tried hard to distance himself from his mom. That is a tremendous sacrifice. She risked losing her relationship with him in order to save him.
We don’t learn a lot about the other Wes Moore’s mother but we did hear that she ignored some pretty significant warning signs (and even real evidence) about her son and drug activity.
The tragedy in this story is that the other Wes Moore did try to turn his life around. He entered a work training program and sought legitimate employment. But the draw of life on the streets with his older brother proved too alluring. The other Wes Moore claims he was not at the robbery when a police officer was shot but the jury decided otherwise. He will spend the rest of his life in jail. The shadows of his mistakes will sleep under him and taunt him at night.
In this time of Presidential elections and debates, the argument over “right to life/freedom of choice” cannot help but surface. What this book shows is that we must must distract ourselves from the rhetoric and turn instead to the reality of it all. We must shift the focus from judgment and blame to education and support. And I do not mean just financial support. We are very busy demanding that young girls not get pregnant in the first place, but we are hesitant to support sex education. And once the babies are born, we literally cut the umbilical cord and send them home with parents who are just children themselves.
It is a vicious cycle of ill-equipped parents raising children who will become ill-equipped parents at often very young ages. Of course, wealthy parents make horrible choices too. Their denial and ignorance is simply more gracefully coupled with the resources that allow access to lawyers, treatment, support, and forgiveness.
I wish this book had contained more of the other Wes Moore’s stories. The author interviewed him extensively and I missed hearing more from him.
What I did really like is that this book was written from a journalistic standpoint. The author did a great job of writing without judgment, apologies, or excuses. He tells the story that is and leaves the reader to determine why.
Several colleges are giving this book to their incoming freshmen so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make. I would argue that doctors should be giving this book to new parents when they have their first sonogram so that they can weigh the importance of the choices they make.
The words on the back of the jacket seem to capture the essence of the story best, “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”