Moore introduces the book, explaining that it is the story of two men born in Baltimore with the same name: Wes Moore. While one of them grows up to achieve great success, the other will spend the rest of his life in prison. The book will examine the decisions that shape our destiny and highlight how easy it is for our lives to take an entirely different direction. While Moore himself won a Rhodes Scholarship while studying at Johns Hopkins University, the other Wes was imprisoned along with his older brother, Tony, for his involvement in a robbery that led to the murder of an off-duty police officer named Sergeant Bruce Prothero.
The lives of the two Wes Moores could not be more similar or more different. On paper, they could be mistaken for the exact same person; yet their destinies are practically caricatures of success and failure. Moreover, during the point at which the author Moore discovers the other Wes, his successful life is only just beginning, as he has just been awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. Wes’s life, on the other hand, has already been cut short, as he will spend the rest of it in prison.
Two years after discovering the story of the other Wes, Moore cannot stop thinking about him, even though he isn’t the type of person to usually become obsessed by coincidences. He quotes a passage from John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, in which the author describes feeling a sudden, renewed sense of connection to his brother after discovering he is on the run from the police. Moore finds it strange that he feels this same sense of connection, considering that he and Wes have never even met. However, he ultimately decides to write Wes a letter asking him about himself and his life. Moore feels uncertain about whether this was the right decision until he receives a letter from Wes that begins, “Greetings, Good Brother,” and contains answers to Moore’s questions.
The connection Moore feels toward Wes is mysterious and instinctive, similar to the ties between real family members. Despite having nothing to do with Wes’s life, Moore feels personally implicated in his fate and curious about how their lives turned out so differently. Rather than seeing Wes simply as a criminal who committed an unforgiveable act of violence, Moore feels desperate to understand the choices Wes made that caused his life to turn out this way. By addressing Moore as “Brother,” Wes mirrors the same sense of fraternal connection (while also using the language of his new Islamic faith).
After this initial contact, the men continue to exchange letters, and eventually Moore begins visiting Wes in prison. Moore is astonished to learn of further parallels between their lives, and feels that their discussions illuminate “the larger story of our generation of young men.” Although Moore never lets himself forget that Wes committed a “heinous crime,” he believes that together they can make a positive contribution to the world by creating a project that would help people understand how life is shaped by certain key decisions. Moore spends hundreds of hours interviewing Wes and his friends and family, along with Moore’s own friends and family. In addition, he consults “teachers and drug dealers, police officers and lawyers” in order to establish the objective facts of both his and Wes’s lives.
Moore suspects that the story of his and Wes’s lives will be of interest not only to the two of them, but also to a wider audience interested in how people shape their own destinies—and how their destinies are shaped for them. Although the book is focused on the specific details of the two men’s lives, the message it contains is universal. At the same time, this message is rooted not in Moore’s own reflections on his and Wes’s lives, but rather objective facts. Thus it is up to the audience to figure out for themselves just what the message is and how it might apply to their own lives.
The book is divided into three sections that correspond to the “three major phases” in the boys’ developing maturity. Each section begins with a short extract from a conversation between Moore and Wes during one of their visits in prison. At the end of the book, Moore provides over 200 resources to help young people create “positive change” in their lives. Moore expresses his hope that people do not read the book as “self-congratulatory” or as a denial of the terrible injustice committed against Sergeant Prothero and his family. Rather, he simply hopes to show how those born into difficult circumstances can change their entire lives by “a single stumble down the wrong path, or a tentative step down the right one.”
Although Moore does illustrate the way in which our destinies can be dictated by external circumstances, he also places emphasis on people’s ability to take control over their own lives. The main purpose of the book is not necessarily to create sympathy for Wes and other people in a similar position to him, but rather to inspire people to make positive, responsible decisions. At the same time, Moore acknowledges that without the necessary resources, it is often simply not possible to make these good decisions.