The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy (Hardcover)
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A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF 2023
“A meticulously researched and briskly written account that deftly weaves the influences of racial injustice, economic disparity, incendiary social media, and guns.” —Associated Press
From the award-winning journalist Bob Woodward calls “one of the truly great reporters working today,” a searing account of two linked and tragic deaths stemming from the 2020 George Floyd protests that explores the complex political and racial mistrust and division of today’s America.
“One of the most superb testaments about the confusion, despair, and—hopefully—humility that frames our century that one could ever hope to read.” —Hilton Als
On May 30, 2020, in Omaha, Nebraska, amid the protests that rocked our nation after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, thirty-eight-year-old white bar owner and Marine veteran Jake Gardner fatally shot James Scurlock, a twenty-two-year-old Black protestor and young father. What followed were two investigations of Scurlock’s death, one conducted by the white county attorney Don Kleine, who concluded that Gardner had legally acted in self-defense and released him without a trial, and a second grand jury inquiry conducted by Black special prosecutor Fred Franklin that indicted Gardner for manslaughter. Days after the indictment, Gardner killed himself with a single bullet to the head.
The deaths of both Scurlock and Gardner gave rise to a toxic brew of misinformation, false claims, and competing political agendas. The two men, each with their own complicated backgrounds, were turned into caricatures. The twin tragedies amounted to an ugly and heartbreaking reflection of a painfully divided country. Here, Joe Sexton “elevates a made-for-social-media tragedy into a kaleidoscopic account of race, justice, and urban politics” (The New York Times Book Review) masterfully unpacking the whole twisted, nearly unbelievable chronicle and explaining which claims were true and which distorted or simply false. “A book of intense moral weight and integrity” (The Washington Post), The Lost Sons of Omaha involves some of the most pressing issues facing America today, including our country’s broken criminal justice system, the failure to care for the men and women who fight our wars, the dangerous spread of misinformation, particularly on social media, and the urgent need to band together in the collective pursuit of truth, fairness, and healing.
About the Author
Joe Sexton, as a senior editor at The New York Times and ProPublica, has directed six projects awarded Pulitzer Prizes, including the award for breaking news for his staff’s coverage of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. He has shared in three Emmy Awards for documentary film, one of them for a harrowing look at the reemergence of violent white supremacists in America. As a reporter, he covered sports, politics, and the country’s criminal justice system. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing. Sexton is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn and the father of four daughters.
“The Lost Sons of Omaha [is a] brilliant and nuanced new work of investigative journalism. . . . A book of immense moral weight and integrity.” —Washington Post
"Through dogged reporting and clear prose, The Lost Sons of Omaha elevates a made-for-social-media tragedy into a kaleidoscopic account of race, justice and urban politics, the legacy of our forever wars and the flaws of our legal system. . . . a searing reminder that reality can’t be reduced to a hashtag or a sound bite. . . . By telling their stories in the fullest way possible, Sexton does justice to James Scurlock and Jake Gardner in a way no court of law or court of public opinion ever could." —The New York Times Book Review
"This anatomy of a killing in 2020, at a Black Lives Matter protest, tries to recover the essences of two men involved. . . . Sexton marshals a remarkable volume of investigative material to disentangle fact from fiction, even though he fears that, in this moment, we may find it hard to see the genuine tragedy, which arises from 'flawed characters caught up in disastrous circumstances.'” —New Yorker, Best Books of 2023
"Sexton has crafted a meticulously researched and briskly written account that deftly weaves the influences of racial injustice, economic disparity, incendiary social media and guns." —Associated Press
“Sexton has been widely recognized for seeing America’s problems with sharp-eyed clarity. . . . [In Lost Sons of Omaha] he explores the redlining and other causes of segregation and racial strife in Omaha and the U.S. . . . and recounts what he calls a spectacularly unfortunate and humanly understandable' dual tragedy sparked during the 2020 George Floyd protests.” —Los Angeles Times
"Sexton pushes readers to look beyond the 'grotesque caricatures' of Scurlock and Gardner presented on social media and in competing political narratives. Instead, Sexton explores the killing through the notion of a 'pure tragedy:' A situation in which there are no heroes or villains, only flawed human beings." —Omaha World-Herald
“Joe Sexton is one of the truly great reporters working today.” —Bob Woodward
“Joe Sexton's monumental study of violence and grief is one of the most superb testaments about the confusion, despair, and—hopefully—humility that frames our century that one could ever hope to read. His care as a reporter and humanist informs every page of this heart wrenching story of loss; his writing is not only passionate and informed, it shines with tenderness, and redemption." —Hilton Als, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism
“This searing account is a true tragedy, in that there are no clear villains and no happy endings. Sexton does a remarkable job of capturing both stories with nuanced thoroughness and empathy.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Carefully written account of a tragic encounter during a Black Lives Matter protest. . . . Sexton does exemplary journalistic work not just in digging up the facts and interviewing family members and eyewitnesses, but also in exposing how the whirlwind of opinionating works against finding the truth on all sides. A well-reported, somber, troubling look at crime and punishment without justice.” —Kirkus
"With The Lost Sons of Omaha, Joe Sexton has written a compassionate yet objective account of two deaths: that of a young Black man shot dead during the heat of a post George Floyd protest march, and the subsequent suicide of the white bar owner who pulled the trigger. It’s a telling that gives equal voice to both sides of a bitterly divided city, capturing both the cynicism and the righteousness, the personal heartbreak and the political maneuvering that is presently eating away at the soul of America in the 21st century. A crushing read." —Richard Price, author of Clockers and Lush Life
“A bracing, rigorously reported story—told with grace and nuance—that takes readers deep into the fault lines of today’s America.” —Andrea Elliott, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Invisible Child
“In The Lost Sons of Omaha, Joe Sexton unleashes with disciplined fury a gripping tale of multiple tragedies that reveal layers of prejudice, sadness, loss, and denial. It is a feat of relentless reporting.” —Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School, author of Race, Crime, and the Law
“In an era of instant news, semi-informed social media commentary, and crime-as-entertainment, Joe Sexton has gone in the opposite direction. He’s crafted a superb book—both sweeping in scale and incredibly detailed—from years of thoughtful, meticulous reporting. It’s a profoundly empathetic endeavor that ranks with the best works of narrative journalism.” —A.C. Thompson, Emmy Award winner for Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, PBS Frontline correspondent, and ProPublica reporter
“Joe Sexton, an old-school reporter, conducts a masterful probe of a heartland tragedy with what is best described as investigative empathy. Gripping. Passionate.” —Errol Louis, Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York
“It took a brave person to write The Lost Sons of Omaha. I sincerely hope that people will take the time to read it. Even if all we do is to absorb the meaning of the book’s title, it could add a lot to reduce the toxic nature of America’s debate.” —Bob Kerrey, former governor and US senator from Nebraska