Title: Sing, Unburied, Sing
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publish Date: September 5, 2017
Series: Bois Sauvage #2
My Rating: 4/5
Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).
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 absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead 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 of 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.
Jojo and Kayla live with their grandparents, and the grandmother is dying from cancer. Their mother is a mostly absent drug addict and their father is in prison. When the father gets released from prison, the mother takes her two kids and a drug addict friend on a road trip to get him. Also, there are ghosts.
Jojo is thirteen and has way more responsibility than he should be dealing with at that age. He looks after his sister and is the one person who really takes care of her. I adored Jojo. He was the best developed character, and my heart was invested in him and where his story was going. The whole road trip, which is a good portion of the book, I was worried about Jojo and Kayla.
There is a magical realism element to the story. Jojo, Kayla, their mother, and their grandmother all have a “gift” and can see ghosts. Not all ghosts at all times, but they have some contact with the spirit world. The ghost part of the story was iffy for me. In some ways, I enjoyed that part and found it added insight to other characters, but in some ways it was just too much.
Sing, Unburied, Sing deals with some tough topics, including poverty, racism, child abuse/neglect, and addiction.
Lyrical writing. Haunting story.