An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines 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. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
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 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.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language, Racial taunts, Discrimination, Violence, Strong sexual themes, Drugs, Alcohol, Criminal culture, Clinical description of slaughtering an animal
Booklist (July 2017 (Vol. 113, No. 21))
Jojo, 13, and his 3-year-old sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, while their mother, Leonie, struggles with drug addiction and her failures as a daughter, mother, and inheritor of a gift (or curse) that connects her to spirits. Leonie insists that Jojo and Kayla accompany her on a two-day journey to the infamous Parchman prison to retrieve their white father. Their harrowing experiences are bound up in unresolved and reverberating racial and family tensions and entanglements: long-buried memories of Pop’s time in Parchman, the imminent death of Mam from cancer, and the slow dawning of the children’s own spiritual gifts. Ward alternates perspectives to tell the story of a family in rural Mississippi struggling mightily to hold themselves together as they are assailed by ghosts reflecting all the ways humans create cruelty and suffering. In her first novel since the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (2011), Ward renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a distinctive style that is at once down-to-earth and magical.
Kirkus Reviews (July 1, 2017)
Ward (Men We Reaped, 2013, etc.) follows her excellent, National Book Award–winning novel Salvage the Bones with her third book-length work of fiction, a searching study of all the ways in which people damage each other, sometimes without meaning to.Leonie, a young African-American woman, lives in the eternal childhood of addiction and dependency; her life revolves around trying to escape from herself, which is no help to her children, one a toddler named Kayla, the other a 13-year-old boy named Jojo. The three live with Leonie’s parents, the gruff but tender grandfather a font of country wisdom (“Goats is mean and pigs is smarter than you think. And they vicious too”), the grandmother steadily being eaten alive by an aggressive cancer. “Each time Leonie told me something mean, Mam would tell her to leave me alone,” a grateful Jojo recounts, devastated to see his mother hollowed by her illness. Clearly the older couple cannot take care of the children, but when Leonie’s white boyfriend is released from prison—Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, no less—things go from bad to worse. It’s not necessarily that the drugged-out couple is evil, but that they can’t take care of themselves, much less anyone else, leaving the children to their own resources—and, as the story progresses, Ward makes clear that those resources are considerable, just as Leonie, who is haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, realizes that she has been dealt a hand that, while tragic, is simply part of the business of life: “Growing up out here in the country taught me things,” she thinks. “Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants.” Time doesn’t improve most people, either: it leads them into adulthood, makes them mean and violent and untrustworthy, all lessons the kids must learn the hard way. Though rough and cheerless, Ward’s book commemorates the resilience of children, who, as in the kindred film Beasts of the Southern Wild, are perforce wise beyond their years. Not as strong as its predecessor, but expertly written all the same, proving Ward’s position at the forefront of modern Southern letters.
About the Author
Jesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.
Her work has appeared in BOMB, A Public Space and The Oxford American.
Sing, Unburied, Sing Reading Guide
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