Mr. Wideman combines the official record with his own experiences and imagination to produce a discourse on truth, power as well as the lie of race and its consequences ... After enough pages, this becomes a challenge to us on both sides to rise up, open the door and see the shared humanity that some have worked so hard to disguise. That is the key to John Wideman’s writing and it is our responsibility to seize it in the hope of saving a life, be it an African-American man shot repeatedly for no reason or our own — and we don’t need to read it in prison to realize its potential within us.
Through flashbacks and self-examination, however, Wideman also wrestles with notions of black masculinity, race and justice in America, as well as the bitter truths and consequences of his own abusive, no-account father ... Not surprisingly, the writing in Wideman’s book, which imagines conversations Louis Till might have had and fills in the blanks of his criminal case, is both sublime and familiar ... At the end of the time-travel journey, however, Wideman leaves us with one inescapable conclusion. When it comes to race in America, as the French might say, plus ça change: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
At times melancholy, at others raw and rippling with rage, Wideman masterfully weaves together memory, history and archival documents with letters and conversations he imagines to capture the cruel irony of the Tills’ fate ... his haunting, provocative and inspired work nobly restores Louis Till’s plundered humanity while exposing the thread that holds centuries of seemingly isolated episodes together.
He discovers missing pages and suspicious inconsistencies in witness testimony, creating far more than a reasonable doubt that Louis Till may have been wrongfully executed. This is the major revelation of the book, and it is a powerful one. But Wideman buries his investigative work in a morass of distracting and irrelevant material. He initially wanted to write fiction about Emmett, and the traces of this first project are scattered throughout the book ... The impulse to combine genres and forms is admirable, but the book sinks beneath the sheer miscellaneous abundance of Wideman’s material.
[Wideman] adds a quietly harrowing postscript to the tragedy of Emmett Till ... Emmett and Louis Till were both victims of what Wideman calls a 'crime of being,' that is, being a black American. By the end of their stories, weeping is too easy. Outrage is needed, not tears.
As I read Writing to Save a Life, I felt jealous on behalf of the more capacious narrative that could have been, had Wideman sought to imagine more of Louis's experience ... Wideman's commitment is to imaginative, not legal, truth: to the realm in which, according to an Igbo proverb he often quotes, 'all stories are true.' In that sense, I came away wanting Wideman to create a more cohesive fiction—a coherent, consistent, fictional Louis Till—to work against the shapelessness of Till's historical presence. While understanding, at the same time, that Wideman wants me to walk away, as he walks away, still frustrated.
Wideman crafts [his] story in a way that shows the full humanity of [his] subject, imbuing a familiar historical narrative with complexity and intimacy ... In this important work, history might rear its ugly head, but through the act of revealing itself it can also be defeated; Writing to Save a Life helps us see exactly what we are facing, and as such opens up avenues to prevent us from living it again.
Wideman unself-consciously intersperses classical traditions with black English. The visual landscape of black American life is also finely wrought, from glistening limbs and Bermuda shorts to the oversize cars of the ’50s and the machinery of the Argo corn company where Mamie Till labored ... Wideman is a master of quiet meditation, a sort that can turn into brooding at the most pointed moments ... For Wideman to write to save a life is to preserve a history that is not up for debate, a long looming story we know to be true.
The result of these efforts, with respect to uncovering some sense of Louis Till the man and of his guilt or innocence based on the file, is mixed at best. By the end of the book, we’re left with a scumbled portrait of a man who is unlikable ... Wideman’s book certainly gives us a striking procedural look into the racism in America’s Jim Crow military. Because of this, it is frustrating that the book misses an opportunity to show how Till’s trial offers us insight into the broader landscape of racist politics in America at midcentury.