Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman
The Louis Till File

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There are many layers of meaning in this book, especially regarding the identification of Wideman with Emmitt, both of them 14 when the author saw a photo of the dead boy’s battered face, and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society.
-Kirkus

Synopsis

An award–winning writer traces the life of the father of iconic Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till—a man who was executed by the Army ten years before Emmett’s murder. An evocative and personal exploration of individual and collective memory in America by one of the most formidable Black intellectuals of our time.

In 1955, Emmett Till, aged fourteen, traveled from his home in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. Several weeks later he returned, dead; allegedly he whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie, wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. She chose to leave his casket open. Images of her brutalized boy were published widely. While Emmett’s story is known, there’s a dark side note that’s rarely mentioned. Ten years earlier, Emmett’s father was executed by the Army for rape and murder.

In Writing to Save a Life, John Edgar Wideman searches for Louis Till, a silent victim of American injustice. Wideman's personal interaction with the story began when he learned of Emmett’s murder in 1955; Wideman was also fourteen years old. After reading decades later about Louis’s execution, he couldn’t escape the twin tragedies of father and son, and tells their stories together for the first time. Author of the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Wideman brings extraordinary insight and a haunting intimacy to this devastating story.

An amalgam of research, memoir, and imagination, Writing to Save a Life is completely original in its delivery—an engaging and enlightening conversation between generations, the living and the dead, fathers and sons. Wideman turns seventy-five this year, and he brings the force of his substantial intellect and experience to this beautiful, stirring book, his first nonfiction in fifteen years.
 

About John Edgar Wideman

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John Edgar Wideman is the only author to have won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice—for the novelSent for You Yesterday in 1984, and forPhiladelphia Fire in 1990. He is the recipient of numerous other awards, including the American Book Award, the MacArthur Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. His latest book, the acclaimed memoir,Hoop Roots,was published in 2001. 
 
Published November 15, 2016 by Scribner. 224 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Law & Philosophy. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Writing to Save a Life
All: 4 | Positive: 2 | Negative: 2

Kirkus

Above average
on Sep 06 2016

There are many layers of meaning in this book, especially regarding the identification of Wideman with Emmitt, both of them 14 when the author saw a photo of the dead boy’s battered face, and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society.

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Publishers Weekly

Below average
on Jun 21 2017

Wideman’s experimental narrative ultimately leaves the reader adrift, though aware that a valuable record is buried in there somewhere.

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NY Journal of Books

Above average
Reviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller on Nov 14 2016

There are pages in Writing to Save a Life that will baffle the reader. Noise? Wideman can change a chord and walk away from it. He is a master storyteller who understands all the stories are true. It’s perhaps why so many of us today link Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till.

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Star Tribune

Above average
Reviewed by JOSEPH P. WILLIAMS on Nov 18 2016

...Wideman’s new book, “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” is to ride shotgun in his tricked-out time machine to a familiar destination: the jagged fault lines of America’s racial divide.

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