Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The opening scene of Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is not for the faint of heart. In it, Jojo watches with equal fascination and horror as his grandfather, Pop — the man who raised him — slaughters a goat.

“Pop slits. The goat makes a sound of surprise, a bleat swallowed by a gurgle, and then there’s blood and mud everywhere,” Ward writes. Later, she describes the slickness of the skin as it peels off the goat’s bloody hide like a banana.

It’s a fitting image for a book that’s filled with death and ruin, of characters so distraught and lonely that many can’t find enough light or hope to claw a clear path out of misery.

The narrative’s main offender is Leonie, Jojo’s mostly absentee (black) mother — an addict so beaten down by motherhood and desperate for her (white) husband Michael’s love while he’s imprisoned for drug-related crimes that she resorts to slapping Jojo and Jojo’s toddler-aged sister, Kayla, to ease the pressure. Either that or taking off for days at a time to get high and ignore the kids altogether.

Circumstances change when Leonie gets a call from Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s state penitentiary, on Jojo’s 13th birthday. After three years, two months, and 10 days, Michael is getting out — and it’s Leonie’s responsibility to go get him.

As one might expect from such ill-suited parents, the road trip to the prison and back with Jojo, Kayla, and Leonie’s friend Misty in tow doesn’t go as planned. Jojo spends much of it suffering from hunger pangs, while Kayla throws up rancid-smelling bile from some unknown illness.

A pit stop to pick up crystal meth leads to a showdown with a highway cop (racial profiling, for sure). It’s a tense incident that ratchets the nerves, especially because we know Leonie swallowed the stash to hide the evidence.

Despite its epic nature, the journey across Mississippi to the tune of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying isn’t what’s revelatory here. Instead, it’s Ward’s wise choice to tell the story from multiple perspectives — Jojo’s, Leonie’s and that of Richie, the ghost of a dead boy who was once incarcerated at Parchman with a young Pop. Through each voice, we get a sense not only of the travails this multigenerational, mixed-race family has endured, but more so of the racist legacy of the Deep South that has been carried through into the present.

The prejudice-spiked antics of Michael’s ex-sheriff father are the most obvious example. There’s also Michael’s cousin who murdered Leonie’s brother, Given, for one-upping him in a bet. Add to that a prison populated mostly by black men who are hunted, tortured and lynched for petty or nonexistent crimes — and this telling depiction of Misty, from Leonie: “Her freckles, her thin pink lips, her blond hair, the stubborn milkiness of her skin; how easy had it been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend to her?”

With a multi-narrator setup, of course, not all chapters are created equal. Those belonging to Leonie, for one, border on the infuriating. (If she drank one more gas station soda without buying her parched, vomit-strewn children a drink!)

In contrast, Jojo’s sections showcase a boy both vulnerable and perceptive beyond his 13 years. His visceral connection to a steeled but empathetic Pop combined with Jojo’s incessant drive to protect his sister from harm pave the way for some of the most nuanced and tender scenes in literature.

But it’s Ward’s clear sense of time, place, and the rich mysteries stuffed in-between that brings this soulful, truth-telling novel together. Like Salvage the Bones, her 2011 novel that won the National Book Award for Fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town on the coast of Mississippi. Ward’s descriptions of the “feathery dark heart” of the region’s bayous, the oppressive heat and its dense woods marred by a violent and tragic history ring out like poetry dangling from the ghost-ridden branches of its trees.

Finally, there’s the matter of the book’s title to contend with. On one level, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a righteous command directed at Given, Richie and the other nameless undead characters whose souls literally grace and haunt its pages.

It’s also a plea to us readers that harks back to themes echoed in Ward’s nonfiction — Men We Reaped, a memoir that focused on the untimely deaths of five young black men in her community, and The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays written by younger writers about race.

Heed these three words, Ward says. Listen to their message. Remember our embittered past. Rise up and learn from our egregious mistakes.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 20, 2017)

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