THE OTHER WES MOORE: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore, Spiegel & Grau, 233 pp., $25.
Two boys are born in Baltimore. Both are fatherless from a young age. Both of their mothers strive to move their families to better, safer places, yet both struggle as crack invades America's inner cities in the 1980s. And both are named Wes Moore.
The coincidence of their lives is discovered when, in 2000, The Baltimore Sun runs stories about both of them - one a success story about a college student becoming a Rhodes scholar; the other a crime story about the fatal shooting of a police officer after a robbery.
Wes Moore the author survived his family's struggles, graduated from college, fought in Afghanistan and worked as a White House Fellow. But after reading about the other Wes Moore, he was haunted by the funhouse-mirror version of himself and how someone so nearly identical ended up with a life sentence behind bars.
Moore writes to the young man who shares his name and so much of his history, and eventually visits him in prison. In "The Other Wes Moore," he tells their stories. He doesn't make excuses for his counterpart's crimes or gloss over his own brushes with the law. What he does is show how easily his success could have been lost and how the other Wes' freedom ultimately was. "The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his," Moore writes in the introduction.
Wes is guided by his brother, Tony, who tries to keep his younger brother from falling into the drug trade as he did. But his words are overshadowed by the money and freedom his actions so obviously provide, and Wes eventually leads his own crew.
The author, meanwhile, is sent to military school by his mother, and although he initially balks at the rules and discipline, his late teen years take an emphatic turn away from street life as he rises through the ranks at Valley Forge and into the Army.
Moore's message is that it takes a village - and a bit of luck - to successfully navigate the negative surroundings where so many urban youths grow up. He benefited from his mother's decision to send him to Valley Forge when he was giving up on school, and from the guidance of a string of mentors. But the book makes it clear that personal responsibility also is paramount. In one of their prison conversations, Moore realizes that this is what Wes fails to understand.
" 'We will do what others expect of us,' Wes said. 'If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, then that's where we will end up, too. At some point, you lose control.'
"I sympathized with him, but I recoiled from his ability to shed responsibility seamlessly and drape it at the feet of others."