One of the most dazzling high-wire acts in American journalism is Charlie LeDuff. Once upon a time, LeDuff was a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. LeDuff was poised to breathe the rarefied air of the upper echelons for some time to come.
Then he threw it all away in 2007 and moved back to his hometown Detroit to write about the civic tragedy that unfolding there. Truth be told, I didn’t pay much attention to LeDuff prior to this — I knew him as a hotshot New York Times reporter who’d won his Pulitzer for participating in Howell Raines’ soporific Race in America series. (Even for the New York Times that series seemed to be less an example of quality journalism in the public interest than a craven attempt at winning a Pulitzer Prize. It worked, so I don’t know whether that justifies my cynicism or just confirms why I’ll never win a Pulitzer.)
Then Matt Labash — a casual acquaintance of mine and tragically underrated journalist in his own right — wrote an amazing piece on Detroit, “The City Where the Sirens Never Sleep.” Much of Labash’s piece centered on LeDuff and his largely unsung attempts to chronicle the city’s descent into Mad Max-ian absurdity:
One night over dinner, Charlie admits that he knows most people think he’s gone back to a dying newspaper in a dying town. But he feels he has work to do here. Not the kind of work that makes Gawker. Real work. He’s always wanted to write about “my people,” as he calls them — Detroiters in the hole — but he wasn’t ready before. Now he is. …
He says there has to be room for the kind of journalism “where it’s not a fetish, where it’s not blaxploitation, where you are actually a human being with a point of view. The city is full of good people, living next to [expletive].” But most media-types don’t bother to ask since they view those people as “dumb, uneducated, toothless rednecks. They’re ghetto-dwelling blacks. Right? They’re poor Mexicans. They’re a concept, not a people.”
Regardless of media-industry misfortunes, work lies before him. “God gave me something to do, and I’m not turning my back on it. I’m trying really hard. Maybe I’m not great. I’m always nervous, never sure if it’s any good. But I’m just trying. What’s wrong with trying?”
Suffice to say, I realized if I hadn’t paid attention to LeDuff before, it was imperative I do so now.
LeDuff and his body of work in Detroit has been nothing short of heroic. And I do mean heroic — LeDuff had to send his family out of town last month when he wrote this incredible story about a drug syndicate killing a murder witness. Obviously, much of what LeDuff covers is really, really tragic stuff, such as this story from last winter about a homeless man who dies frozen in a block of ice in an abandoned building. But while there’s no shortage of pathos among the wreckage of Detroit to exploit, LeDuff’s real talent as a writer lies in finding the humanity necessary to pull meaning out of despair.
So that’s a heck of a build-up. Why is this blog discussing LeDuff? Well, his latest story for the Detroit News, “Detroit woman seeks resting place for grandchild’s ashes” is about a poor woman’s difficulties burying the dead members of her family.
Martha Ann Barnett’s 15-year-old granddaughter was killed in a drive-by in January of 2008. Since then her remains have been kept in a box, “inside the linen closet near the bathroom, above the rolls of toilet paper and dirty laundry.” Her grandmother is too poor to bury her. Not surprisingly, the story is going to touch on religion:
Barnett pays her rent with a Social Security check and lives with her infirm daughter — Little Martha’s mother — who shuffles in and out of the bedroom where Martha used to sleep, listening to a radio, occasionally going to the stove to light her cigarette. The first time I visited, she caught her hair on fire.
“I know my grandbaby’s in a better place,” Barnett said. “Absent from the body. Present with the Lord,” she said quoting the New Testament.
“But still I’d like to bury my little lamb proper. Return her to the dust from which he comes. Maybe near her granddaddy. Could you help me?”
I promised I would try to make some arrangement. No child deserves to die like Little Martha did. No child deserves to drift in death. It is Christmas, after all.
“I know I ain’t the only one who’s known pain,” Barnett said. “Lord knows I ain’t the only one.”
This isn’t a story that deals with complicated theological issues or delves deeply into the woman’s faith, but the religious elements are woven so smoothly into the piece it’s almost as if they’re grace notes — not in the metaphorical sense, but as actual examples of someone finding strength in God through their faith. I knew LeDuff was a great writer, but I walked away from this story thinking this man Gets Religion. Go read the rest — now.
*photo of Detroit’s abandoned public shool book depository — the same building where LeDuff found the frozen homeless man — taken from joguldi’s flickr page