Writing to Save a Life

The Louis Till File

Writing to Save a Life

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.
  • Scribner | 
  • 224 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781501147296 | 
  • October 2017
List Price $22.00 (price may vary by retailer)

Hear an Excerpt

Resources

To download a file to your computer right-click on the link and choose 'save file as'

High Resolution Images

Reading Group Guide

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

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 Dis see more

About the Author

John Edgar Wideman

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.

BECOME A FAN

Explore

CONNECT WITH US