"A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. In Jesmyn Ward's first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise. Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature"--
Nothing about the story generates hope that things will ever be better. The realism is hard to face, and I needed breaks to get through it. The grinding poverty, a mother's disregard for her children's welfare, the inhumane treatment of prisoners (both past and present), beleaguered ghosts and the protracted suffering of an old woman. When I push through that kind of difficult reading, I hope for some illumination of why people behave that way, what makes it possible for victims and survivors to endure such a life...maybe even a clue as to how changes in attitude and behavior might come about. I got very little of that from this book, and yet I am better for having read it, somehow. No one gets a pass from the author here...not her characters and not her readers, but it is impossible to miss the message that there IS love in this family. JoJo would endure almost anything to comfort and protect Kayla; Pop is attentive to his wife and a decent father figure for JoJo; Leonie rouses herself to fulfill her mother’s last wish for help in contacting the voodoo gods she believes will open the door to the next world for her; Michael defies his own uncompromising family in allegiance to Leonie and his children. This is not an uplifting tale of overcoming obstacles; rather it is an unsparing look at how insurmountable the obstacles can be.
It is also torturously depressing to read,
with a book-long agonizing death from cancer,
with hideous murders recounted by the undead and unburied,
with endless, unredemptive drug addition and domestic abuse,
with racist and homosexual prison horror upon horror,
contrived POV and conversations with the still unburied,
with a hideous graphic goat slaughter...
...it simply goes on for too long with no hope for change and the tiresome image of Kayla wrapped around JoJo or puking all over him and the car.
It feels like the author wants readers to suffer as much as sensitive young Jojo does with his selfish, pathetic mother and dim father.
This book is very hard to read; aside from the fact that the subject matter is current, as well as historic, it is also about the horrific brutality, that was and still is, often inflicted upon a people, regardless of their guilt or innocence; this behavior is unjustified regardless of the innocence or guilt, color, creed, nationality, religion or any other defining aspect of that victim. No behavior on the part of anyone can justify the unimaginable punishments meted out; the mutilation, the torture or even merely the humiliation of another, should not be tolerated by society, but in an advanced society, this criminal behavior of those in power seems much more egregious.
This book is an intense examination of the racial situation and the victimization they experience in their ordinary daily lives. Avoiding the injustice perpetrated upon them is almost impossible since it is rained down upon them according to the whims of the angry mob mentality of their abusers. It is not, however, I believe, because of white supremacy, a catch term that has taken hold as a rallying cry. Rather, to me, it is because there are simply hateful people with evil in their hearts who will justify their despicable behavior with any excuse they can muster up that will gain the support of other likeminded despicable creatures. This behavior is often obvious on both sides of any conflict, none is defensible.
Each chapter of this book presents the voice of one of the three major characters, Leonie, Jojo and Richie. Most of the dialogue takes place as Leonie drives her friend Misty and her two children, to pick up Michael, their father, from Parchman prison, as he has served out his sentence. On that ride, black life is very fully presented in view of their behavior and approach to life, and the behavior of others in the world toward them. Each of them, in their own way, is a victim of society’s injustice and the injustice of their own cultural environment. Each has to fight a system that overpowers them, that does not provide them with the tools they need to achieve parity.
As the book explores the history and lifestyle of its characters, it uses the dialogue between them, coupled with their individual thoughts and memories, to highlight the injustices that they have had to suffer, and even ignore, to avoid further retaliation. They were often in a position of vulnerability that allowed no bridge to justice. Although it is not specifically addressed in this book, it is this backward and forward looking at the situation that they faced that allows the reader to understand the anger that is boiling over in today’s society, even if they disagree with the methods now being used by some of those who are angry, since they justify their own brutality in ways not very different from the justification of abusive power used by their “enemies”. Those without power often seek not justice, but to overpower those in power to assume the same mantle of superiority, rather than equality.
I listened to the book and thought it might be better to have read it in print. Although the book was read well by several readers, to delineate the characters, I thought some portrayals were a bit excessive. At times, Leonie seemed too sultry and Jojo’s speech pattern, too stereotyped in its presentation. Richie was alternately portrayed as a young boy and as a man, in his tone of voice, perhaps to emphasize the passage of time. There was no way, however, to find any fault in the prose of this author; it is so far superior to that in many books written today. The choice of vocabulary and the way in which the words were combined made for an eloquent and often poetic presentation, painting pictures and images for the reader to see in their mind’s eye, sometimes making some of the scenes almost too horrific to imagine. The influence of the fear and often shame that constantly haunted the life of the victims, created hopelessness and an “underground” lifestyle. Norms in their world were often at odds with the norms in the world of others.
Throughout history, groups that have been abused by the prejudices of others have been blamed for bringing this abuse upon themselves because of their own behavior. If nothing else, this book will disabuse the reader of that fact. Nothing justifies the brutality or bigotry that the people of color have had to deal with because nothing makes brutal behavior toward anyone acceptable. No behavior on anyone’s part, no biological aspect of anyone’s body or cultural and religious choice makes cruelty toward anyone acceptable, in my opinion. While it may be impossible to prevent the expression of opinions, there is a proper and improper way to express those opinions. No behavior that threatens another should be acceptable. No behavior that intimidates another should be applauded. Everyone, I believe, has a responsibility to behave in an acceptable manner, at all times, without bringing harm to another, except in cases of unavoidable war to prevent just that kind of inhumane behavior, but we must be fully aware of the fact, that, that makes us guilty of being “the pot calling the kettle black”.
At the end of the book, while I felt I had really learned a great deal about society’s mistreatment of others, specifically, in this book, of those of color, but universally, as well, of all people who are powerless, I did not feel that there was any viable solution offered to make things more tolerable, to right the wrongs of racial injustice, or to bring back a return or an insurgence of common decency. Just as some of the characters were haunted by visions, so our society was and still is haunted by unjustified feelings of hate. Also, while the idea of the injustice and horrific prejudice and hateful behavior toward a group of people was excellently and honestly rendered, I wasn’t certain that the expectation of responsible behavior on the part of those victims was as fully explored. As both worlds were examined, however, the world of color and the world without, the bias and overt injustice experienced by those who were powerless were horrifying. It is a virulent disease spreading all over the world, as we witness, daily, the horrific violence inflicted upon populations that are weaker or less in favor then the one in power.
Regardless of the victim’s behavior, which is ridiculously, somehow supposed to justify the injustice, there is no acceptable excuse for any of the brutality or expressions of violence and hate that have become almost daily occurrences. Perhaps the haters have mastered the art of making this behavior so common that we have become inured to it and are beginning to accept it as normal rather than what it is, totally abnormal, a total aberration of the human condition and merely an expression of man’s inhumanity toward man.
The first thing that I must mention is the characters and characterization in this novel. We follow a couple main perspectives. The first is Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who has been raised mostly by his grandparents (Mam and Pop), as his mother is addicted to drugs and his father is in prison. He has also taken on the caregiver role to his little sister Kayla, wanting to keep her safe from the ills of the world. Mam is very ill with cancer, and Pop tells Jojo stories from the past in hopes that Jojo can learn from them. The second is Leonie, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Her boyfriend Michael is getting out of prison soon, and her all encompassing love for him blinds her to most other things. Her drug addiction is fueled in part by the fact that she sees visions of her dead brother Given while she’s high. The final perspective is from Richie, the ghost of a thirteen year old boy who died at Parchman, the prison Michael is at. Richie knew Pop when he was alive, and he has unfinished business with him. Jojo starts seeing Richie on their travels, as Richie knows that there’s a connection there. All of these characters are well rounded and explored, and I got a feel for every one of them (as well as a number of the other characters like Mam and Pop). I understood the motivations of each of them. I was especially moved by Leonie, as while she makes terrible and selfish decisions when it comes to her children, I completely understood why she made those choices, and how factors both within her control and outside of it have made her into the person that she is.
The themes of this book also blew me away. For one, I’m a huge sucker for a ghost story, and this one has the feel of a Southern Gothic novel with the isolation and wide open spaces that still feel claustrophobic. But Ward brings in other ghosts that haunt this country and our culture, as the setting and characters are still plagued by the racism that has so infected this country. From the remnants of Jim Crow laws to the consequences of the War on Drugs to police brutality and violence, the journey that this family takes, physical and emotional, always has the specter of racism hanging over it. Ward doesn’t offer any solutions or answers or happy endings of conclusions to this, and all you can hope for is that this family will continue to survive in face of explicit (Michael’s family) and implicit racism that surrounds them. It’s really the perfect use of a ghost story, as the all too true horrors of our racist culture and society still haunt us, as much as we may hate to acknowledge it.
And the writing is just beautiful. Ward has a serious talent for creating a story and an imagery that leaps and flows in the pages of this book. I felt like I could see everything that was happening in my mind’s eye, and I was so engrossed I devoured this book in a day’s time. Ward is an author who is being called a ‘modern Faulkner’ by a number of people, and while I understand the sentiment (examinations of the American South are a commonality between the two), I think that she easily stands in a league of her own. This book is exactly why, and I urge everyone to give it a try and see why, because nothing I write here will be able to do it justice.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, no question. Please please please go read it and see for yourselves.
The story takes place on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where the bloody ghosts of its Jim Crow racist past are never hidden far below the surface.
Leonie is a young African-American drug-addicted mother with two children, Jojo (age 13) and his sister Kayla (3). Leonie mostly leaves the kids in the care of her own parents, Mam and Pop. Mam is dying of cancer, so Pop and Jojo carry most of the load of running the house and raising Kayla. The story is narrated in turn from multiple perspectives.
Parchman State Penitentiary is a character in this story also. Pop was sent there for five years when he was fifteen, and the trauma he experienced there has haunted him ever since. Leonie’s white boyfriend Michael (who is also the father of her two children) is in Parchman as the story begins, but is about to be released.
[In real life, Parchman had been notorious for many years for being run like a slave plantation, with inmates suffering murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses. In 1972, four Parchman inmates brought a suit against the prison superintendent in federal district court alleging their civil rights under the United States Constitution were being violated by the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. The federal judge found for the plaintiffs, and reforms were subsequently instituted. But reports of abuses and corruption have continued to plague the prison, albeit across the color line now. As Michael wrote to Leonie: “This ain’t no place for no man. Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead.”]
Leonie insists the kids ride with her to Parchman to pick up their father. She also brings along her white friend Misty, a fellow drug-addict who also has a boyfriend in Parchman. (Misty’s boyfriend is black, and “this loving across color lines was one of the reasons we became friends so quickly.”) Misty is Leonie’s only friend.
When Leonie is high, she sees her dead older brother Given, who was killed fifteen years ago by Michael’s racist cousin. In fact, Michael’s whole family consists of rabid racists, and his parents won’t even acknowledge their half-black grandchildren.
Leonie can only see the dead with drugs, but Jojo and Kayla have the “gift” of hearing voices and seeing the dead at any time. Jojo is a bit worried that when Mam dies he will see her as a ghost. She tells Jojo she thinks not; rather, she will be “on the other side of the door. With everybody else that’s gone before.”
But Jojo has reason to worry about being surrounded by ghosts; he is now being followed around by a ghost named Richie, who came back with them from Parchman. Richie was only 12 when he was in prison there, at the same time that Pop (whose name is River) was there. Pop has told Jojo stories about Richie, but never about what happened to him and how he died. Richie asks Jojo to find out from River, because River can’t hear him like Jojo can. Richie explains he needs to know how he died; he thinks if he does, he will hear the song that will free him from this half-way existence and let him move on to the afterlife. [Is the song one of love for those who died? A promise of justice or of change in the South? It’s unclear to me.]
And Richie is not alone in his situation. “‘There’s so many,’ Richie says. . . ‘So many of us..’ ‘Stuck. So many crying loose. Lost.’” The stuck ones are those that suffered unjustly and died violently; those who were lynched, tortured, murdered - they are all waiting, in sorrow and pain, to hear the song to send them on.
Whether Jojo can help him find the song drives the narrative, as do the ties of family and love that can see us through the worst of times.
Evaluation: Even though some of the characters act badly, most of them elicit sympathy. Others, like Michael’s extended family, are horrific, but they are not portrayed unrealistically; unfortunately, virulent racism like theirs still exists.
This story is haunting in two senses. One is its inclusion of ghosts, although this is definitely not a “paranormal” story; they can be seen as narrative devices, and/or as metaphors. The other is that the story and characters and what they endured will stay in your mind long after you finish reading.
This book raises some thorny issues that would make it an excellent choice for book clubs.
For as lyrical as her prose is and as vibrant as her characters are, the story itself, while important and fascinating, did not entice me to read it. I found myself finding reasons not to pick up the book and continue reading, plus I found I had only enough attention to last one chapter. Some of this is due to the fact that nothing about Jojo’s story is easy. Between the racism, the abject poverty, the drugs, and the cancer that afflict one or all of his family members, the reader gets hit with wave after wave of despair and darkness, making frequent breaks a requirement.
While I could muscle through Jojo’s story, important because it allows non-white readers the chance to somewhat understand what it feels like to live in this country as a person of color, the magical realism elements of the story left me completely uninterested. These scenes seemingly come out of nowhere and do not mesh with the rest of the narrative. In addition, one might even feel that they are not necessary to complete Jojo’s story. While the ghost is the medium through which Jojo and the reader learn Pop’s story, these scenes provide little else in the way of enhancing the novel and made it even more difficult a chore to finish reading the novel.
There is no doubt that Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important story for understanding the racial, social, and economic divides that not only still exist but seem to be growing ever farther apart. There are scenes that will quite literally haunt me forever in their bleak realism. In such an honest novel though, the magical realism does not sit well. It adds nothing and, if anything, makes it easier for readers to dismiss the entire story as fanciful and therefore less realistic than it is. As such, I wanted to love this critics’ darling but ended up struggling through it to the point where I was relieved when I was done. It is an unfortunate response to a novel which is as timely as it is vital to building empathy within society.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
Their journey is interspersed with accounts of past events that have shaped the family; ghosts accompany them on the trip but only Jojo can see them. These stories are dramatic, often violent, and together with the present-day narrative show the immense challenges facing those marginalized in our society. Ward’s writing is brilliant. Her stark portrayal of the American south makes for emotionally difficult, but important, reading.
Ward succeeds in this by sharing the story of the members of an extended family that includes thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Added to these family members is the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.
Ward's poetically lyrical writing style is present throughout the novel with the story told primarily from the point of view of Jojo and his mother Leonie. Meanwhile, the ghost of a youth who had been killed while escaping the Parchman Farm, who joins them on their visit there, and who can only be seen and heard by young Jojo, adds to the bleak story a poignancy that is almost breathtaking.
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with some of the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a wonderful new contribution to the literature of the American South. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by a relatively new author at the height of her powers.
By Jesmyn Ward
The book opens when a young girl and her father choose a young goat, lead it to a barn where they kill it, skin it, slaughter it and eat it. Although, thankfully, it is the only animal killing in th book, the feeling prevails throughout. This is a very hard edged book and very blunt...Wards use of words, and tone are poetic and add so much to this look at the deep Black South of Mississippi.
Issues of mixed relationships, drug abuse, violence, struggle are essential for us to understand and important themes in this wonderfully deep novel. It is so important for us to relate to others and respect them as people, so we can bring heart and humanity back to this country... This book is not for the weak....
I felt a real compassion and connection to JoJo, one of the main characters. A child born to a black mother, Leonie who was a meth user and a white father, Michael who spent a lot of time incarcerated, he was not acknowledged or accepted by his Grandfather....Jojo must learn from the violence and despair that surround him and learn the lessons of life, respect and survival mostly on his own....
This is not an easy book to read, but it is essential, esp in this climate of hostility and hatred so many are feeding into and becoming a part of.
An excellent book and recommended highly esp to those interested in the class and race struggle, and the human fight for acceptance, dignity, respect and change.
I enjoyed the opening pages. We're in the deep south of Mississippi again with a rural back family. 13 year old Jojo is primarily being raised by his beloved grandparents along with his toddler sister Kayla. Their mother Leonie has a drug problem, too immature and unstable to mother them properly, and she drifts in and out of their life. Their white father Michael is in prison at Parchman.
Now Michael is about to be released, and has asked Leonie to pick him up. She decides to bring the children, along with a ditzy friend of hers for company. A little drug smuggling is also involved. The trip to and from Parchman constitutes the heart of the novel. The trips seemed to go on forever and ever--how long does it take to drive a couple of hundred miles anyway?
The return trip home is aggravated by the fact that in addition to Michael they've picked up an additional passenger--the ghost of a 12 year old boy who has a connection to Jojo's grandfather. Only Jojo can see him, and must make room for him in the already crowded back seat.
Things become more and more unrealistic and fantastical. We'd already been exposed to another ghost, that of Leonie's older brother, Given, who died as a teenager and who Leonie sees and talks to when she is on drugs. I kind of accepted that in the beginning as a literary device. But the introduction of the 12 year old boy ghost was too much--he was an actual character who sticks around and causes certain things to happen.
One reviewer on Amazon stated my thoughts more clearly than I've put them here: "The portrait of a Mississippi family dealing with racism, poverty, incarceration, and drug addiction is well-drawn, but it's hard to take any of it seriously when there are two separate ghosts that keep popping up (one of whom even gets to narrate a substantial portion of the story)."
If it sounds as if there is a lot going on. There is, but the narrative flows smoothly and compellingly; this is one book where a plot summary does not represent the novel. What I found remarkable was how Ward makes these troubled people into rounded characters with whom one can empathize. More broadly, the horrors of racism and its consequences are vividly brought to life: the book is hard to read in places, because what is described is so horrible. The writing is beautiful and at times poetic. It took my a while to get used to the shifts in diction, but in time, like the complex plot, the language all worked together. A wonderful book. Along with many awards, it's been chosen as the first month's choice in a new book club started by the New York Times and PBS. The book will be discussed with Ms. Ward on air late this month, and I certainly plan to listen.
It is no surprise that Sing, Unburied Sing won the National Book Award for Fiction and was named as one of the top books of 2017. It is a beautifully written novel with lyrical prose and complex and interesting characters. The narration is split between Jojo and Leonie and later in the book, Richie, a ghost from Pop's past. Jojo is certainly the most likeable of these characters but Leonie is, by far, the most complex - on the surface, she is selfish and needy and indifferent to anyone but Michael, her white lover, and often showing almost hatred towards Jojo who, in turn, dislikes and distrusts her. But in her internal dialogue, we see a more nuanced character, one who has never gotten over the death of her brother; who knows that her actions and reactions to her son are wrong; who is willing to take an action that will aid her mother, knowing how it will likely look to the rest of the family; and who is aware of her obsession for Michael and wishes she were able to give just a little of that love to her children but knows that she can't. This is also a tale about how memory and the past colours the presence, that the dead are never fully gone from our lives but are rather there 'pulling the weight of history behind them'. These ghosts of the past are there in Pop's stories about his time in the notorious Parchman prison and what happened to Richie, something that remains a mystery until the very end of the story; in Leonie's inability to let go of what happened to her brother; in the actual ghosts that Jojo, Kayla, and Leonie can see; and in the road trip which makes it clear that the injustices and inequalities of the past has never gone away even if we want to believe they have.
This was the second book this week I've read that took place in a backward town that hasn't quite caught up to the 21st Century. And, like the other one, I loved this one.
Jojo is a great character who does a lot of the narrating of his story in this book. He's such a sweet child and the responsibilities placed on him at such a young age are horrendous!
Leonie is Jojo's mother, when she wants to be. She's a very selfish person, loves meth and will let her kids go days without eating.
During the trip to the prison to pick up Jojo's dad I wanted to crawl into this book and just squeeze the crap out of Leonie's neck. Well, maybe just slap her around a few times and show her some sense. Ha!
A sad, beautiful story that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Thanks to Scribner and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.