I know, I’m late to the party. This book made a big splash back in September – everyone was talking about it, and it won the National Book Award. My library, however, did not have enough copies to go around, and I was late putting a hold on it, so the hold I put on it in January finally came around to my turn!
In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward returns to the same neighborhood in Mississippi that Salvage the Bones was written about. (Two of the siblings from Salvage the Bones show up in a scene in Sing.) The story is told from three different viewpoints: Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy and the main character of the novel, Leonie, his drug-addicted mother, and Richie, the ghost of a boy Jojo’s grandfather met in prison.
This book covers so much that it’s difficult to categorize – between discrimination and outright bigotry, bi-racial romance and children, drug addiction, poverty, prison life – deep south gothic, I suppose, would be the best description. Sing really only takes place over a couple of days, but it feels much longer, because Jojo’s grandfather tells stories of his time in prison decades prior, Leonie reminisces about high school, and there’s just this sense of timelessness over the entire novel.
It’s not an easy book. These are hard issues to grapple with, and too many people have to live with these issues. Poverty, bigotry, addiction – these things disproportionately affect the black community, and white people are to blame for the imbalance.
I’m not sure how I feel about the ghost aspect of the book; on one hand I feel like people will see the ghost and decide the book is fantasy – that they don’t really need to care about the problems the family faces. On the other hand, the ghost allows us to see even more bigotry and inhumanity targeted at black people. So it serves a purpose.
I’m not sure I like this book. But I’m glad I read it. And that’s pretty much going to be my recommendation; it’s not a fun read, but it’s an important one.
From the cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing:
In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.