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.Introduction
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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?