In 1986, 26-year old Ruth visits a friend at the hospital when she notices that the door to one of the hospital rooms is painted red. She witnesses nurses drawing straws to see who would tend to the patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life. Before she can even process what she’s done, word spreads in the community that Ruth is the only person willing to help these young men afflicted by AIDS, and is called upon to nurse them. As she forges deep friendships with the men she helps, she works tirelessly to find them housing and jobs, even searching for funeral homes willing to take their bodies – often in the middle of the night. She cooks meals for tens of people out of discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets, stores rare medications for her most urgent patients, teaches sex-ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of a deeply conservative state.
Throughout the years, Ruth defies local pastors and nurses to help the men she cares for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke. Emboldened by the weight of their collective pain, she fervently advocates for their safety and visibility, ultimately advising Governor Bill Clinton on the national HIV-AIDS crisis.
This deeply moving and elegiac memoir honors the extraordinary life of Ruth Coker Burks and the beloved men who fought valiantly for their lives with AIDS during a most hostile and misinformed time in America.
Praise for All the Young Men:
A Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award
One of Library Journal’s Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2020
A UK bestseller
“My friend Ruth Coker Burks is one of the most amazing people I know. The care she gave HIV-positive gay men in and around our hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas during the desperate early days of the AIDS crisis helped them live and die with dignity in the face of stigma and discrimination. In All the Young Men, Ruth tells their stories and hers with the same warmth, wit, grace, and gumption that I have admired for decades. This book will make you love her as much as I do.” —President Bill Clinton
“A powerful memoir… Burks’s spirited, straightforward prose balances the heartbreak of her story with just enough humor and toughness. A must-read for anyone interested in narratives of front-line responses to the early AIDS crisis as well as personal accounts of kindness and determination.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Burks’ vivid memories of ‘my guys’ and the trials she endured fighting against prejudice offer a portrait of courageous compassion that is both rare and inspiring . . . [A] deeply moving, meaningful book.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Anecdotes of small-town gay bars and drag queen rivalries add levity to tales of hardship and sacrifice—crosses set ablaze on her lawn, her young daughter ostracized at school . . . This worthy account offers as much bitter as sweet.” —Publishers Weekly
“All The Young Men is an urgent story that needs to be told about the early years of AIDS in the American South. From her first moving encounter with an abandoned young man hours before he died, Ruth Coker Burks cares for ill gay men and fights homophobia with compassion, wit, courage and righteous anger. It’s inspiring and compelling to read of her battles against indignities and intimidation, bigoted families and churches, and demeaning health care. The reader cheers her on when Coker Burks finds both opponents and allies in her work. She writes of Jimmy, Howard, Douglas, Danny, Neil, Tim and Jim, Marc, Bob and Phil, Chip, Luke, Angel, Jerry, Misty, Billy and all her ‘guys’: ‘I wanted them to be counted, to have their lives matter.’ All The Young Men achieves that beautifully, memorably, in their honour.”—Robert Hamburger, author of A Length of Road
“This astonishing modern-day Good Samaritan story will move you to tears of sadness and outrage, but also buoy you. For Coker Burks is a do-gooder with sass. And hers is a story of ordinary but heroic human empathy that we could all do with reading right now.”—Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
“If you are hungry for a humane approach to an epidemic, read this astonishing book.”—Richie Jackson, author of Gay Like Me
“Ruth’s gumption to do what’s right and the way it constantly guides her is a gift to the rest of us. She is full of compassion and a firm, deep-seated belief that all people are worthy human beings. She saw an injustice and acted . . . This book is perfect for the time we are in right now . . . Vastly transcends what readers will first hear about it.” —Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield’s Books (Sebastopol, CA)