Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Every so often, I read a book that stumps me, in the sense that it satisfies my ever need and takes away any chance of critiquing it. I’m taking perfect books. Instant classics. You could say that these books really just leave me speechless. This feeling often catches me in the middle of books like The Bell Jar, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, or, likely, any classic ever written. I feel like I am not equipped or deserving of critique for these books; they have established their claim as masterpieces, and who am I to judge?
Jesmym Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing”is one of these perfect books. As a winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, the masses seem to think so, too.
The story follows a Mississippi interracial family. Jojo does his best to pick up the pieces left astray by his mother, Leonie, and look out for his infant sister, Kayla. They are watched over by their grandparents, Mam, a dying spiritual woman, and Pop, an ex-prisoner who works the land. Leonie, a neglectful mother, learns her husband, Michael, is getting out of Parchman prison, and she whisks her ill-adjusted children away on the northbound journey. After quick stops for drug deals and bouts of sickness, they reach the prison, where Jojo realizes he can see the spirit of a dead boy he knows from Pop’s stories. As his family navigates their problems, he reluctantly sets out to help the boy find his way home.
Leonie’s emotionality is heightened by her drug use, as she retreats away from her children to do cocaine or meth with her friends and her beloved. She desperately wants to be a better mother, and she resents the nurturing bond she watches develop between her children, as she realizes that she is not a caregiver. To escape her pain, she continues to twist further into her comforts, and when she’s high, she sees the apparition of her dead brother, Given, haunting the corners of her rooms.
Dramatic tension between a mother and child is not easy to write unless one has experienced it, and Ward creates a vast distance between Leonie and Jojo, letting their disappointment and bitterness ring out loudly. As infuriating as it is to watch a child be forced to assert independence because of neglect, a profound sympathy can be found in Leonie’s life and losses.
Leonie is not the only one haunted by ghostly visions of the past. Jojo finds himself a focus of Richie, a dead prisoner boy that Pop once guarded over in Parchman. Richie was the youngest person in the prison camp, and his years were lived when the prisoners were forced to work the cotton fields. Whipped, beaten, and worked to exhaustion, Richie shows us the extenuating implications of slavery, long after the Emancipation Proclamation has been signed. He is an example of the abuse dealt toward black men long after they were legally declared more than property.
Exploring the rich and terrible history of racism in the South, Ward’s characters describe to us scenes of poverty, imprisonment, lynching mobs, and the systemic prejudices that robbed millions of their rights to life and safety. Her story shows the struggle of Black people, and emphasizes that this story is today’s story; that it is still the story embedded in culture.
Ward’s prose and vivid imagery is sweepingly deep, and she makes her words take on a physicality, a tangibility. She connects humanity and the mundane with comparisons and descriptions that evoke spirituality and a powerful connection to nature. Rugged, but graceful, Ward’s beautiful passages ring out with texture.
“But every part of Pop moves: his hands as he speaks; his shoulders folding forward as softly as a flower wilting at the hottest part of the day…His face, all the lines of his face, sliding against each other like the fault lines of the great fractures earth.”
This is a tale rooted in the muddy Earth and grown into the spirit world, its roots constantly writhing amidst tense historical context. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a mirrored reflection of the past, and its weight placed upon the present, as well as a wrenching portrait of endurance, and how the jagged edge of time and loss and change shape who we become.