Book Talk: All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks & Kevin Carr O'Leary

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

The BookWalker

About the Book

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.

Reviews & What Readers Say

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 HAMBERGER, 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."

―BookList

All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks & Kevin Carr O'Leary

All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks & Kevin Carr O'Leary

Grove Press

304 pages

ISBN 978-0802157249

Note: Now available. Click here

Ruth Coker Burks was a young single mom in Hot Springs, Arkansas who cared for people with AIDS when no one else would in the 1980s and 1990s. With no medical background, Ruth single-handedly created a network of care, and saw to the final resting places of many men abandoned by families and neglected by medical professionals. For 30 years, Ruth has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas.


In the summer of 1997, Kevin Carr O’Leary was 21 and a recent graduate of Wesleyan University when he started work at Poz, a landmark magazine about living with HIV. He has since co-wrote five New York Times non-fiction best sellers, including Strength in Stillness with Transcendental Meditation instructor Bob Roth, This Is Me with actress Chrissy Metz, and Open Book with singer Jessica Simpson. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and two children.