A major literary figure tells “a searching tale of loss, recovery, and deja vu that is part memoir and what-if speculation, part polemic and exposé” (The Washington Post) about two generations of one family—civil rights martyr Emmett Till and his father, Louis—shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Emmett Till took a train from his home in Chicago to visit family in Money, Mississippi; a few weeks later he returned home dead. Murdered because he was a colored boy and had, allegedly, whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till, chose to display her son’s brutalized face in a glass-topped casket, “so the world can see what they did to my baby.”
Emmett Till’s murder and his mother’s refusal to allow his story to be forgotten have become American legends. But one darkly significant twist in the Till legend is rarely mentioned: Louis Till, Emmett’s father, Mamie’s husband, a soldier during World War II, was executed in Italy for committing rape and murder.
In 1955, when he and Emmett were each only fourteen years old, Wideman saw a horrific photograph of dead Emmett’s battered face. Decades later, upon discovering that Louis Till had been court-martialed and hanged, he was impelled to investigate the tragically intertwined fates of father and son. Writing to Save a Life is “part exploration and part meditation, a searching account of [Wideman’s] attempt to learn more about the short life of Louis Till” (The New York Times Book Review) and shine light on the truths that have remained in darkness.
Wideman, the author of the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, “is a master of quiet meditation…and his book is remarkable for its insight and power” (SFGate). An amalgam of research, memoir, and imagination, Writing to Save a Life is essential and “impressive” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) reading—an engaging, enlightening conversation between generations, the living and the dead, fathers and sons.
This reading group guide for Writing to Save a Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the process of researching civil rights martyr Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old black boy who was beaten, mutilated, and murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman—John Edgar Wideman finds that Emmett’s father, Private Louis Till, was hanged in Italy in 1945 for rape and murder. Like Emmett Till, Wideman was fourteen in 1955; like Louis Till, Wideman’s father served in World War II. Struck by their similarities and the horror of Emmett and Louis’s stories, the author embarks on a search for the truth of Louis Till’s life and death. From gospel music documentaries to official court transcripts to a cemetery in Brittany, France, Wideman researches the circumstances of Louis’s life and simultaneously explores his own memories of growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s. Wideman imagines what life looked like from the perspectives of Emmett, Louis, and Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, conjuring their voices to offer up the truth absent from official records.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why was Louis Till’s confidential service file leaked to the press two weeks before the grand jury convened to determine the fate of Emmett Till’s murderers? What effect do you think the file’s revelations had on the jury’s assumptions about Emmett?
2. How do the statistics on the racial breakdown of American soldiers executed after court martials in World War II found by Wideman influence his assumptions about Louis’s trial?
3. When Wideman receives Louis Till’s confidential file from the army, its pages aren’t numbered and they don’t describe the events of Louis’s life in order. Why do you think Wideman is driven to number the pages himself? What problem does he encounter when he tries to do so?
4. What does Wideman find in the Louis Till file about how the results of Louis’s court martial were authorized for release? Does the limited material that exists lead you to suspect there were correspondences setting the groundwork for the leak that weren’t included?
5. What contradictions does Wideman find in the testimony of the Italian residents of the house in which Louis and Fred A. McMurray, a black soldier and his supposed accomplice, allegedly raped two women and murdered one of them? Who was the third soldier at the scene on the night of the rapes, and why do you think he was not charged with a crime?
6. Is Wideman surprised by the desolation he finds when he travels to Promiseland, South Carolina, his father’s birthplace, to visit the graves of his father’s family? What does the crumbling settlement signify to him?
7. Why did Wideman, as a child, repeatedly decline to visit his grandfather in Virginia despite his grandfather’s eagerness to host him? Would you have made the same decision?
8. When Wideman abandons the book he is writing about Emmett Till, he defines his new project as his “yearning to make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons” (page 17). How does his narrative go about accomplishing this ambitious goal?
9. Throughout Writing to Save a Life Wideman focuses on the process in which he writes the book, describing how he came to Louis Till’s story and how researching it changed him. How does the focus on process affect your reading experience?
10. Wideman’s approach to discovering what truly happened to Louis Till “assume[s] certain prerogatives” by “allowing [his] fiction to enter other people’s true stories” (page 34). He imagines the motivations and thoughts of his subjects as he provides factual context about the social and economic conditions in which they lived. How does taking these licenses reflect that the Louis Till file itself, though narrated in an objective tone, in fact “writes fiction” (page 113)?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Wideman feels he has an added connection with Louis Till because his father served in the army during the same year. Does anyone in your book club have a parent or grandparent who served in or lived through World War II? Discuss the experiences they shared about that time.
2. Wideman believes the train station where Emmett’s body was returned to his mother may have been the one in which gospel legend Willie Mae Ford appears in the documentary Say Amen, Somebody. Watch the documentary and find the scene. How does knowing the story of Emmett change the impression it makes?
John Edgar Wideman’s books include American Histories, Writing to Save a Life, Philadelphia Fire, Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Dreams, and Sent for You Yesterday. He is a MacArthur Fellow, has won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award. He divides his time between New York and France.
“A quietly harrowing postscript to the tragedy of Emmett Till [and] a searching account of [Wideman’s] attempt to learn more about the short life of Louis Till.” —New York Times Book Review
“A searching tale of loss, recovery and deja vu that is part memoir and what-if speculation, part polemic and exposé … At times melancholy, at others raw and rippling with rage, Wideman masterfully weaves together memory, history and archival documents ... to capture the cruel irony of the Tills’ fate … Haunting, provocative, and inspired.” —Washington Post
“Wideman is one of the great prose stylists of contemporary American fiction, a master of parallel fragments and the question-as-statement.” —Bookforum
“[Wideman is] a towering figure in American literature… one cannot deny the force of Wideman’s vision and the measure of his grief and moral concern. The great body of work that he has gifted us carries voices and memories from the past into our present.” —The Nation
“Brilliant and ultimately ferocious.” —Dallas Morning News
“Haunting.” —New York Magazine
“A provocative mix of nonfiction and imagined scenes … [Wideman] shines a light on Emmett’s little-known father.” —Newsday
“Reading Writing to Save a Life is to ride shotgun in [Wideman’s] tricked-out time machine to a familiar destination: the jagged fault lines of America’s racial divide.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Forty-nine years after the publication of his first book, Mr. Wideman has forged ‘Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,’ perhaps his most impressive armament so far … A challenge 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.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A genre-defying mix of history, biography, and memoir that explores the role of race in the 1945 court-martial of Louis Till, a 23-year-old soldier who was executed for rape and murder while serving in Italy.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Captivating … Wideman revives an incredibly disturbing but largely forgotten detail from the Emmett Till affair … Like a forensic defense attorney, [Wideman] interrogate[s] the file from every possible angle: the questions not asked, the abridged statements and translations, the mystery of Louis Till's silence about his own guilt or innocence.” —Mother Jones
“In a writing career that is already full of tremendous achievements, this slim volume represents some of Wideman’s most powerful work.” —Literary Hub
“Combining elements of original research, memoir, and informed imagination, this moving account provides a poetic but dark vision of racial injustice passed from father to son.” —Library Journal, starred
“There are many layers of meaning in this book … and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society. A book seething with the passion and sense of outrage behind the Black Lives Matter movement that also traces specific roots of the movement's genealogy.” —Kirkus Reviews
“With his trademark penetrating style, Wideman recounts the life of Louis Till, the circumstances that brought him to his death, and the circumstances that would end the life of his son 10 years later.” —Booklist
“In his long awaited new book, Writing to Save a Life, John Edgar Wideman tells the largely forgotten story of Louis Till, a man of color who suffered a miscarriage of racial justice a full decade before the infamous lynching of his son Emmett. Wideman pens a powerful blend of fact and fiction, riffing on concerns and themes that he has explored for a half century now in his highly distinguished body of prose. These pages represent a wise and wonderful achievement, both timely and timeless.” —Jeffery Renard Allen, author of the novels Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back
"John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File excavates the forgotten prequel to a brutal chapter in the ongoing history of American racial injustice. Wideman examines a particular narrative—the way a father’s death was exhumed to justify his son’s murderers going free—in order to question the terms of narrative itself, refusing to mistake silence for significance, absence for presence, or history for truth. I read this provocative and surprising book in the wake of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and it felt utterly essential. I was grateful for Wideman’s nimble intellect, his commitment to nuance, and his insistence that we pay attention to the brutalities perpetrated under the guise of justice." —Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
“Unclassifiable and harrowing. The path through ‘the very specific American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons’ is found and lost and found again through prose that jumps and shimmers, punches and croons. This is one of those books virtually impossible to write…yet it has been written. And by a great American writer.” —Joy Williams, author of Ninety-Nine Stories of God and The Visiting Privilege
"Writing to Save a Life is a mercurial coupling of fact and fiction from a profound writer. Wideman's conceit is that to grasp fully the lives and deaths of Emmett, Mamie and Louis Till—son, mother, father—one medium of human understanding is simply not adequate. It is a rare and stirring document." —Richard Ford