Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File

Written by John Edgar Wideman
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman. For this “crime,” he was abducted, brutally tortured, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. The lynching of Emmett Till, his mother’s insistence on an open casket to expose the mutilated body, the lax prosecution of the murderers, and intense national focus on the story helped propel the American Civil Rights movement.

From here, Wideman circles out to the lesser known but equally disturbing story of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, an American soldier in WWII, who was found guilty by a military court of the rape and murder of an Italian woman, hanged, and dishonorably buried. Wideman’s meticulous research makes a compelling case that Louis Till was framed, and both Tills were victims of a deeply racist society and complicit judiciary. Equally suspect, Wideman maintains, was the use of Louis Till’s story in the aftermath of Emmett’s murder.

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File interweaves the Till stories with reflections on absent fathers in African-American families and Wideman’s own, conflicted relationship with his father. The author’s extended search for Louis Till’s grave in a French cemetery veers further, to Wideman’s marriage, relations with contemporary French artists, his own research process, and search for closure.

Readers should expect disturbing subject matter and explicit racial and sexual expression. In weaving multiple stories, Writing to Save a Life often uses sudden shifts of focus and elliptical, near stream-of-conscious passages which sometimes dull the narrative. However, the sobering truth is that in the decades since the deaths of Louis and Emmett Till, racism is still deeply ingrained in American culture and the judicial system, making this work a timely, disturbing exploration of history’s grim repetitions.