Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is the kind of book you can’t really put down once you pick it up. Partly it’s because the real action takes place over a very short amount of time and is so nerve-wracking I just couldn’t bear to stop reading, and partly it’s because the narrators in the book, Jojo and his mother, Leonie, and Richie, a boy who died years before the action of the story, are just too compelling to turn away from.
Jojo lives with his mother, his little sister, Kayla, and his maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, in rural Mississippi. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday when the novel begins, and Jojo’s first task of the day is to help his grandfather slaughter a goat for his birthday barbecue. Jojo says “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Oh, he’ll be looking at it straight, all right, and so will the reader. Ward doesn’t shy away of any of the details and so you’ll know pretty much from that opening scene that violence is part of the deal in this book.
This family has its share of troubles. Mam is currently bedridden, ravaged by cancer; Leonie is addicted to drugs; Michael, Jojo’s white father is currently in prison. Jojo depends on himself and his grandfather, who is loving albeit taciturn. Pop demonstrates his affection for Jojo by telling him stories, stories about his childhood and stories about his own incarceration.
Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he’s reached out to me, like he’s rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I’ll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure.
Jojo’s main concern is Kayla, who is only three. He no longer depends on his mother and, in fact, thinks of her as Leonie. “It was a new thing, to look at her rubbing hands and her crooked teeth in her chattering mouth and not hear Mama in my head….”
When Michael is due to be released from prison, Leonie decides that she should make the journey to the prison to pick him up. She also thinks it would be a great idea to bring Jojo and Kayla, and her co-worker, a white woman named Misty whose boyfriend, Bishop, is also serving time. It’s hot, Kayla is almost immediately car sick, and the whole journey just seems fraught with danger.
Both Leonie and Jojo see ghosts. Literally. Leonie sees the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed in a hunting accident fifteen years ago. Given was, by all accounts, destined for greatness: a talented athlete, popular and well-liked. Jojo sees Richie, a young boy who was incarcerated with Pop. In some ways Richie and Given are a manifestation of the guilt carried by those still living, but at the very least they are indicative of the way we are shaped by our pasts. Can we blame Leonie’s vices on the loss of her brother? Can we, at least, empathize with her? I’m not sure I did, she was just so negligent, but I was wholly invested in Jojo and found it impossible not to worry about him the entire time.
Sing, Unburied, Sing tackles the prickly topic of racism, too. Michael’s parents are make-no-bones-about-it racists. Leonie has talked to them exactly four times and is well aware that Michael’s father, Big Joseph (after whom Jojo is named) would rather “hang up in my face […] than speak to me, the nigger his son had babies with.” When a white cop pulls them over, my heart was in my throat the whole time. This is a story that carries the weight of hundreds of years of racism on its shoulders. My white privilege, I know, makes me blind to it.
This is a must-read book.