By this point you’ve probably heard of Wes Moore, as he has been making quite a splash in the mainstream media from NPR to Oprah. After hearing him on NPR, I just had to read his non-fiction memoir, The Other Wes Moore. The one-sentence summary is that the author grew up fatherless in a poor, mostly black neighborhood in inner-city Baltimore, got into trouble at school, but ended up as a Hopkins graduate, a White House Fellow, and a Rhodes Scholar; the “other” Wes Moore grew up fatherless in the same poor, mostly black neighborhood in inner-city Baltimore, got into trouble at school, and ended up serving a life sentence in prison. The hook, of course, is the coincidence of the identical names. Although this fact was merely a coincidence, it was enough to establish contact between the two Wes Moores and to form the initial premise of the memoir.
On the whole, I liked this well-written book. The author tells a compelling pair of tales, no less interesting just because we know the ending in advance. (It’s a memoir, not a mystery.) But the press and the public have made too much of the implication that the extreme contrast in the fates of the two Moores was due to a couple of “good” decisions made by the author and ”bad” decisions made by the other Wes Moore. Yes, there’s a bit of that in the book, but it’s definitely not a bring-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. The author came from a family with a history of college graduates, his father died unexpectedly when Wes was young, he received opportunity after opportunity from adults who were looking out for him, he was sent to distinguished private schools, and he was given contacts early on such as an invitation to have dinner with the assistant admissions director at Johns Hopkins. But the “other” Wes Moore came from a family with no history of education, his brother was a thug and a drug dealer, his drug-addict father abandoned him and the family, and he had no opportunities other than the chance to make a lot of money selling drugs. So this isn’t really a story of making the right choices — it’s a story of being given the right opportunities.