An amalgam of research, memoir, and imagination, Writing to Save a Life is an investigation into the death of Louis Till, the father of Emmet Till who was abducted and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
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.