The true story of Ruth Coker Burks, a young single mother in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who finds herself driven to the forefront of the AIDS crisis, and becoming a pivotal activist in America's fight against AIDS.
It’s a tale of high drama and mesmerising detail, but also of breathtaking courage and compassion ... The cause is education, combating prejudice and hate, but most of all the cause is love. It’s the love Burks didn’t get from her family or husband. The love she lavishes on these men is deeply moving, and she gets some back. At a gay club she meets a community of drag queens who are like a family. The star of them all, Billy, is the one she loves most ... The ghost writer Kevin Carr O’Leary has taken Burks’s stories and turned them into a beautiful book, catching her Southern sass and charm. The epilogue makes it clear that Ruth Coker Burks has not had the recognition or happiness she deserves.
Throughout the memoir, it’s hard not to fall in love with Burks for her big-heartedness and enduring sense of humor in the face of suffering. However, All the Young Men isn’t an uplifting book. Ignorance, denial and cruelty have always been, and always will be, killers. But as Burks forges a path alongside these vulnerable men, her embrace of education and rejection of bigotry light the way forward for us all.
The origin story of the protagonist, dramatic on its own, is mentioned as an aside to the vignettes about the lives of the men she helps. It provides a powerful backstory. Her mother, a former nurse, was placed in a TB sanatorium when she was a child. She didn’t have TB but a rare lung disease. Medical misdiagnosis and mistreatment are part of the family history, and so too is caretaking. The first-person narrative offers the reader moments of shared epiphany ... The unflappable nature of her resilience against the shifting historical context is stunning to witness. Her co-writer, Kevin Carr O’Leary, helps shape this hero narrative well.Any drag queen worth her words will admire Coker Burks’s southern sass as an art form. The dialogue is cutting and exact ... All the Young Men could be categorised in many ways: it’s one woman’s relentless mission to help a community survive when those in power abandoned them. It’s the tale of people with Aids who returned to Arkansas during the first years of the epidemic. It’s also the story of a Christian woman who would go on to advise the Clinton administration on Aids education.