Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)
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 grandfather Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his 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 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.
This is an incredibly powerful book that employees all kinds of archetypes and flips them on their head in a way that rings sadly true. The setting of a family road trip, a purportedly happy experience, is filled with drugs, sweat, and vomit.
Much of this novel’s power comes from how painful it is to read. There were moments of parents hitting children, heads hitting windshields, and drugs hitting bloodstreams that had me gasping and wincing. One of the things we kept circling back to in our discussion of this book at book club was which part was the most painful to us and while I thought I knew my answer, the discussions continued to remind me of the other sections that made my skin crawl. It’s impossible for me to choose just one. Reading this book is a viscerally physical experiences of pain.
In contrast to those dark and painful scenes, the moments of love and embrace in this novel are made even more special. Jojo’s love for his younger sister is fierce; he would go to the end of earth to protect her, but his mother seems to always be in the way. He has immense respect for Mam and Pop.
Ward does not stop there. This story travels outside of those tangible experiences of love and pain through ghosts, spirits, and magic. The three generations of characters in the novel expands as they are visited by ghosts of both the more recent and the further past. Ward creates a beautiful interplay between pain, love, and loss.
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3 thoughts on “Sing, Unburied, Sing”
Yes, yes, yes! What a great review, Morgan! I completely agree that the painful moments were offsite by the love and loyalty shown; this story truly affected me and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. What a great book club choice!
I felt a little differently about this one. While I certainly agree with the painful moments and love and loyalty, I didn’t actually want to pick it up while reading it (which is sort of a bottom line criteria for me). And, the ghost part of the story did not work at all for me.