If I were teaching narrative writing, I wouldn't hesitate to assign any of these standout stories to my students. More importantly, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend these pieces to readers who cherish and respect the promise of what journalism can be when it is practiced at the highest level. These are pieces that I would have loved to edit myself, or even better, would have loved to had the joy to report and write.
"Soldier of Misfortune," by Beth Hawkins. Here is the highly compelling story of a guy, down on his luck, who went off to Iraq, not as a member of the U.S. military but as a paid private security guard for a contractor. The job ultimately cost him his life. He was captured by Iraqi insurgents, held for ransom, and ultimately tortured. I'll let you find out how this tragic story ends. Published by Minnesota Monthly, the story is a stunning example of great storytelling.
"Trashed: The Death of Michael York and How Heroin has Invaded the Chicago Suburbs," by Bryan Smith. Published in Chicago magazine, this gripping story brings home to suburbia the tragedy of drug use and addiction. It's the tale of a teenager whose body turned up in an alley on the west side of Chicago. The high school student died of an apparent overdose from heroin after a weekend party in a suburban mansion. To cover up the accident, his "friends" dumped the body in an alley in the snow face-down at the foot of a dumpster.
"Free Man," by Tony Rehagen. Published by Indianapolis Monthly, this is the story of a man who spent 23 years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. The writer catches up with him two years after his release and writes a brilliantly evocative story of how hard if not impossible it is to put your life back once you're jailed--even when you never should have been in prison in the first place.
"The Last Days of My Left Breast," by Viva Las Vegas. Published by Portland Monthly, this candid story is the harrowing first-person tale of a young woman who discovers that she has breast cancer. Because she is a stripper in a city club, the loss of her left breast not only has traumatic emotional and physical consequences. There are economic issues as well. It's an exceptionally honest and well-written account by a non-journalist and it makes for gripping reading.
"Mike Leach is Thinking," by S.C. Gwynne. This Texas Monthly cover story deftly provides a multi-dimensional portrait of a pirate-crazy man who may be the best college football coach in the country. I am no football fan. In fact, as a lifelong rabid baseball fan, I rather dislike football. Yet I could not put this exceptionally-crafted profile down.
"The River Lady," by Linda Vaccariello. This story, published in Cincinnati magazine, is the fascinating tale of a woman whose body was pulled from the Ohio River three years ago. Yet, no one could identify who she was. "No one was missing her," as one investigator put it.
"Wrongful Death," by Jason Fagone. Yet another narrative that is almost impossible to put down, this piece is the behind-the-scenes story of the demise of one of Philadelphia's most famous law firms. Published in Philadelphia magazine, the drama opens when a young lawyer at the firm receives a simple text message from a friend: "sorry to hear about your firm."
"But the Dream Should Die," by Joe Keohane. A highly provocative yet convincingly argued essay that explains why Ted Kennedy should be the last Kennedy we ever elect. It smartly ends a powerful portfolio of stories in Boston magazine on Sen. Kennedy's life and legacy. As the headline of the piece puts it: "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, but the dream should die."
So even in this age of budget cuts, layoffs, newspaper and magazine closings, journalism that informs, inspires and entertains is being published every day in both likely and unlikely places. Thank God for that.