The book tells the story of the author, Wes Moore, and another man with the same name who grew up around the same time in the same area. The two men had eerily similar early lives: both were raised by single mothers in and around Baltimore, both had early childhood brushes with the law, and both struggled in school. Somehow, Wes Moore the author became a Rhodes Scholar, the other Wes Moore got sent to prison for life in 2004. When the author first heard about the “other” Wes Moore, he became so fascinated that he wrote him a letter, and their subsequent exchanges became this book.
I thought when I started the book that it would be easy to figure out where the other Wes Moore went wrong, and where the author Wes Moore chose correctly – but it is actually very difficult to determine. Both of them worked to improve their lives through what educational opportunities they could find, but what worked for Wes Moore the author failed the other Wes Moore miserably. If we can trust the author and assume he isn’t being self-deprecating, he often got lazy and squandered the opportunities he had, while the other Wes Moore seemed to try harder and more consistently when given a chance. Why did he fail? Was it the difference between going to military school and going to vocational school? Was it the difference between their mothers and extended families? Was the other Wes Moore more desperate because he had children to support, and therefore more likely to resort to crime? We can speculate, but we’ll never know.
I would recommend this book to anyone who liked the HBO series The Wire, because it’s like a nonfiction version. (I found myself picturing characters as their TV analogues.) It’s also great for book clubs – mine discussed it to death. If it has a fiction read-alike, I would pick Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. The time period is all wrong, but the story of a young man trying to make it in a world set up against him is reminiscent.