Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
Read March 2019
This is a very difficult book to read. The family in this book suffers from poverty, racial prejudice, drug addition, loss of a son to a lynching, haunting memories from past that are also racially driven, and impeding death of a loved one to cancer. It’s sometimes tough to stay with this dark text, but in the end, well worth the effort.
Jojo, a mixed-race thirteen year old boy living with his black grandparents in poor rural Mississippi who clearly loves and is loved by his grandfather, is a primary narrator. His mother, Leonie, had Jojo when she was 17 and a daughter when she was 26, is a second narrator. Richie, a boy Jojo’s grandfather knew when he was in Parchman (now Mississippi State Penitentiary) eventually joins as a third narrator.
Jojo’s voice starts us on our journey with this fractured family with “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” He’s about to join his grandfather in butchering a goat that will become his 13th birthday dinner. He desperately wants his grandfather, Pop, to “think I’ve earned these thirteen years” and that he’s ready to do the work that needs to be done. We learn that he’s already doing a lot of work as the primary caregiver of his three year old sister, Kayla. Jojo’s grandmother “Mam” is dying of cancer and is now confined to her bed and dealing with searing pain and the gradual loss of her body to her disease so she is no longer able to provide care to her daughter’s children. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is not around much and Jojo has learned to expect little or nothing from her when she is around.
Through Leonie’s narration we learn of her enduring love for the father of her children, Michael, the son of a white family that has essentially disowned him for taking up with a black girl. Michael is currently at Parchman for an unnamed offense. They apparently lived together with their children in an apartment while he worked on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. After it blew up he lost his job, they lost the apartment when his severance ran out, and they moved in with her parents. Leonie now works at a bar with Misty, a white girl who lives in a MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) cottage, courtesy Katrina. Leonie and Misty are heavily into drugs, apparently selling as well as using.
When Leonie receives word that Michael will be released from Parchman, she decides to take the kids with her to pick him up so they can again be a family. Pop and Mam are not excited about this road trip and she eventually decides to have Misty come along too. Much of the alternating narration between Jojo, and Leonie, and eventually Richie, is focused on the road trip which includes some drug dealing, an interaction with the police, essentially no care or feeding of the children, and vivid descriptions of Kayla’s puking all over everything repeatedly which certainly heightens the stress in this heavily loaded car (five people and hidden drugs) driving the back roads of hot and humid Mississippi. (Why does so much of modern TV, film, and literature involve throwing up—starting in the first chapter of this book after the goat is slaughtered?)
Through a supernatural vein, Ward brings forward the horrors of Parchman, the death of Leonie’s brother, Given, by the hands of Michael’s cousin, and countless other atrocities committed against black men and women through the history of the country. Jojo, Leoine, and Kayla are blessed with (?) and burdened by their abilities to interact with those that have met violent deaths. Richie is desperately seeking the land across the water where everything is peaceful and beautiful. It’s not clear to this reader that this approach for highlighting Ward’s theme of continued racial hatred and its consequences in this country is the most engaging. Certainly we hope Richie and future children don’t have to find peaceful and beautiful places to live only after they die and leave this planet. However, Ward lost my attention a bit when Richie’s vision described” yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas.” This language wasn’t quite compatible, to this reader’s ears, with the story of the twelve-year-old sent to Parchman for stealing food for his starving siblings.
Fortunately there are some positive moments in the book, although they carry a heavy undertone as well. The descriptions of Kayla clinging to Jojo shows how deeply committed Jojo is to her care and well-being, but this is in stark contrast to Leonie’s inability to care for either child herself. Similarly, Jojo’s relationship with his Pop is beautifully drawn, but the story Pop slowly reels out to Jojo about Richie is a very dark one.
This book was selected as the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction over two other books this reader has recently read: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and The Leavers by Lisa Ko. It’s interesting they all discuss challenges to family that are at least partially driven by the society in which the family lives because each is part of “the other” = “not us”. The Leavers and this book both use first person narratives of a son and mother. In The Leavers, the son and mother do push through a challenge to their relationship by correcting a misunderstanding about why the mother has left the son, although in the nicely ambiguous ending they continue their separate paths. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, there is no reconciliation between mother and son, partially driven by the son’s age and substantially because the mother isn’t ready to return in any way to her son. All of these books require the reader to face many realities past and present of members of our society which we would otherwise not know. I can only speculate that Sing, Unburied, Sing won over The Leavers partly because Ward’s language is more like that of another revered Mississippi writer, Faulkner, to whom she has been compared, and partly because the racial issues in Ward’s book remain unresolved and violent. The issues raised in The Leavers may seem more modern but have certainly been present throughout the country’s history, just less devastating for earlier immigrants than the racial issues present in Ward’s book. At any rate, all these books deserve reading as each will provoke a reader’s thinking about how we treat “other” and the impact of that treatment. I do remain curious whether any of these books will become “classic” according to this reader’s personal definition— the book is still read 50 years after its publication. The glorious flood of serious literature annually makes this a large challenge but one that this reader hopes can be met.