Sing, Unburied, Sing a Powerhouse


By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 304 pages

Sing, Unburied, Sing hits you like a punch you should have seen coming but didn’t. When I first began reading it I was underwhelmed and wondered why it had won the National Book Award. Then, Bam!!!  It slammed me between the eyes.

It is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico. When we meet “Pop” and his 13-year-old grandson Jojo, they are about to butcher a hog for the latter’s birthday—Jojo steeling himself and trying to remain stoic amidst the blood and viscera. As we meet the rest of the family living in a shotgun cabin, we are lured into a timeless rural mindset. There is Jojo’s 3-year-old sister, Kayla; their mother, Leonie; and Pop’s wife, “Mam,” lying in a back room and wasting away from cancer. The feel is that of a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker novel set in the Reconstruction South. Then small references begin to unsettle us—first of mechanical devices, then of motorized vehicles, which forced us to think maybe it’s the 1920s. Then come mentions of Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon and it hits you that this is now, not the sleepy past. Bam!!!

Sing, Unburied, Sing has been compared to Morrison’s Beloved and with good reason: it’s really a ghost story. When Jojo tells us early on, “I like to think I know what death is…” we’re being set up. One of our ghosts is history itself, but not the dead hand of the past moldering in the ground, rather one (in Karl Marx’s words) that “weighs like a nightmare in the brains of the living.” As we work our way through the many racial injustices in this poor, our minds conjure other ghosts: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…. We think also of ghosts who departed early dues to the hidden injuries of class.

Ward doesn’t allow us to make this just a novel about race. Jojo and Kayla are biracial, their white father Michael doing time in northern Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm*. Stroylines intersect as Pop once did time there himself—back when Parchman was as close to hell as a living black man could get. It was slavery cloaked in legal garb and when Pop was there, so too was a 12-year-old black child named Richie, sent up to do hard adult time for the crime of being so hungry he stole some meat. Pop came home, but Richie didn’t, a story Pop spins out for Jojo in pieces. Richie is another of our ghosts, a wandering spirit seeking to come “home,” wherever that might be. Still another is Leonie’s brother Given, murdered by a jealous white boy he thought was his friend simply because he was a better athlete and woodsman. Death is everywhere in this book: people, goats, hogs, deer, oil-choked dolphins….

The question is whether the dead stay dead or, if like history, they weigh like nightmares—perhaps concrete ones. Mam is a “seer,” as is Kayla and (maybe) Leonie. The book’s structure is deceptively simple; Michael is being released from Parchman and Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla set off to fetch him, along with Leonie’s white friend Misty, with whom Leonie shares a love of booze and drugs. As you can imagine, this is not going to be a routine journey. Think detours into crystal meth, serious medical issues, confrontations with racist cops, and a family reunion that’s not exactly like something out of “Father Knows Best.” And let’s not forget the ghosts. Can we sing them home?

This book has it all: Christianity mixed with voudon, descriptions so vivid we can smell the mud, and repeated patterns of resistance, fear, resignation, and moving on. (A repeated Jojo line: “It don’t matter.”) Do you like metaphors that spring to life? Pop’s given name is River. Read the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Think of shades of meaning embedded in the words “sing” and “home.” Be literal and muse upon Parchman (parched + man). Muse upon Mam’s cancer and think globally. Think upon Black Lives Matter and dare to ask if that’s true, then or now. Let that weigh on your brain. 

What a powerful book. Bam!!!

Rob Weir

*Music fans might recognize Parchman Farms as the subject of several blues songs. It’s also where Alan Lomax famously collected blues classics in the 1940s. [check)

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