Updated: Jan 30, 2020
TITLE: Sing, Unburied, Sing
AUTHOR: Jesmyn Ward
PUBLISHED DATE: September 5, 2017
At this point, I have read this book, no less than three times. This book gets more moving with each read, and it is literally and figuratively haunting and I love and hate it all at the same damn time.
Ward introduces us to a family that is tucked between past and present. JoJo (Joseph) is a 13 year old boy who finds stability in his grandparents Mam and Pop. His mother, Leonie, is negligent and abusive to both JoJo and his 3 year old sister, Michaela (Kayla). On one of the rare occasions that Mam and Pop entrust Leonie with her children, she takes them on a statewide adventure across Mississippi to pick up their incarcerated father Michael, doing time for cooking, dealing and abusing methamphetamines. Leonie takes her children, along with her meth-head friend Misty, a trek that includes a stopover at a meth house, a hunger filled car ride, and her 13 year old son cowering on the wrong side of a police officer's gun.
The language in this novel is intense and urgent with elements of magical realism infused in a way that is highly emotional and raw. Ghosts Richie and Given haunt certain members of the family, but Jim Crow, poverty, the legacy of slavery, and the pervasiveness of modern anti-miscegenation vex the characters in this novel in ways that are profound and revelatory. The importance of names along with the critique on race relations in the new south is potent. Though there are so many hard truths and gut wrenching moments, there is also profound love, subtlety, and worlds beneath what is said and what is not.
Ward takes Parchman Farm, also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and drags the dark secrets of its past into the illuminating present througb a series of characters all drastically affected by the place. Pop, a former felon who did hard time at Parchman in his youth, shares stories of a young inmate who left a lifelong mark on him. While serving hard time at the prison, he befriends a 12 year old prisoner named Richie who continues to haunt both Pop and Jojo. Michael, JoJo's father and lifelong love of Leonie, is a white man doing time at Parchman in the present day. Ward is brilliant at showing the generational effects of imprisonment and how that pain ripples throughout a family.
There aren't many novels today that capture drug addiction in a way that is humanizing, painful, honest and poetic. Leonie uses meth to regularly meet with her deceased brother, Given. Given is murdered and the thickness of the injustice surrounding his murder quietly complicates relations between Leonie's black family and Michael's white family. With heartbreaking prose, Ward describes Leonie's deep desire to please and be welcomed into Michael's family while at the same time being afraid of them.
The magical elements are critical to the story and are much in the traditions of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Here we have actual ghosts, with unresolved issues and stories to tell, but we also have the rituals of voodoo and the dark arts performed both by Mam and Pop, a way of bringing old world magic into solving today's problems. Whether it's the crafting of a gris gris bag for safety on a journey, or in the communication of animals, or the calling out of wounds, this book delves deep into the spiritual, with all of the members of this family possessing varying degrees of magic. Also particularly profound, was dehumanizing legacy left by slavery of people thinking of themselves and being devalued into animals. This reduction is not limited to black folks, Ward let's the children of slave masters share in the dehumanization.
Our discussion at the book club was lively. There was so much to talk about. All agreed that the book earned it's National Book Award. The discussion proved that is a lot of depth and many different ways to interpret the nuances of this book. i highly recommend this book for book discussions.
Recommendation: Required Reading. I'm already off to read everything she's ever written.
Audience: Millennials and Up.