A review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Tom Funk
Imagine a world where you know from your early teens that the future holds no bright prospects for you. A world where you cannot hope to rise above the rural subsistence farming of your parents. You have no money. Your schools have been substandard, completely absent from the benefits that advance one toward a lucrative professional career, and forever doomed to stay that way by the lack of property values and attention by the relevant bureaucracy that racism and crony capitalism have left in their paths.
Your family supports you, but they can’t do much about the lack of opportunity. For generations they’ve lived in the stifling culture that keeps them where they were born, much in the same way the atmosphere traps the humidity and heat in August. The best they can do is help you avoid the death traps, of which there are many.
Your skin is too dark for any of your white peers to show you respect. That doesn’t rule out that some of the white boys your age will pursue you. They dangle the prospect of an escape from this prison without walls if you’re pretty, and compliant, enough. But that isn’t much comfort against the risk that crossing the wide racial gulf won’t end in tragedy as it did for your brother, who dared to best the wrong white boy in a hunting competition, and paid for it with his life in a hunting “accident.”
When one of the white boys who paid you attention gets you pregnant, your chances of graduation evaporate and you discover the reality of what raising a biracial child by yourself is like. You turn to drugs. Meth is cheap and readily available. It’s also very addictive and before long, you’re hooked.
Now you’ve lost the right to raise your child, but you find yourself pregnant again. This time your baby’s daddy won’t be around at all, because he’s going to Parchman, the state prison.
This is the world inhabited by Leonie, one of the two main protagonists in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing. It’s the second of her three book Bois Sauvage series. Set in a rural Mississippi Delta town like that of her youth, Ward’s rich prose paints a stark picture of life and death in one Black family. More fully, she paints a picture of life, death and afterlife in this small town, because the place is haunted by ghosts. The ghosts are familiar to the members of her family. Her murdered brother Given is one of them, haunting her Meth highs with a sense of dread and warning about where her relationship with the cousin of the man who killed him might take her.
The other main storyteller is Leonie’s 13-year-old son Jojo, the son of her white boyfriend, Michael. Leonie’s drug addiction has forced Jojo into an early adulthood, taking care of his three-year-old sister Michaela. He has no small amount of resentment about this. He cannot depend on his mother for anything and she looks to him to provide the nurturing for his sister that she seems incapable of.
Jojo and Michaela’s world is visited by Richie, the ghost of a 13-year-old boy that their grandfather, Pop, met when he was a prisoner in Parchman, the brutal state prison where Richie’s natural life ended. Richie seems trapped in Bois, unable to move on to the next stage of his afterlife by an inability to understand how his life ended. Pop knows, but hasn’t told Jojo this part of the story.
The bulk of the story is Leonie’s road trip with her white friend Misty to Parchman, Jojo and Michaela in tow, to pick up Michael upon his release. The trip exposes both Leonie’s struggles to perform as a mother and her dogged determination to meet the needs of her fragile family. She battles her own addiction issues while navigating the racial burdens imposed on her without mercy by the police, the stifling culture and, most hurtfully, by Michael’s family.
At times this story can feel hopeless. Leonie seems doomed to keep repeating the mistakes that addicts feel they have no choice but to make, forfeiting the things they hold most dear for the thing that seems most urgent. But in Jojo, there is a resilience, so much determination to overcome, that it seems it is unlikely to die with the revelations of adulthood. At thirteen he is already making choices forced upon him by his mother’s helpless state. And he is gifted with a supernatural ability to hear the song. It’s a song that somehow binds the family together with the tragic past and its hope for a better future. And its sung most clearly and loudly by the ghosts of those that met a tragic unjust death.
Ward is a masterful storyteller whose prose can be jarring at times for its unflinching description of the mundane elements of rural life. The sound and sights of a goat being butchered, the scent of vomit left by a toddler’s sickness and a dozen other unpleasant details that most writers would overlook do not escape description here. But neither does the beauty of the natural world that Leonie and her family inhabit. There is a vivid sense of place here that few can match.
I was left with a deep sense of empathy for all of the main characters here. None of these characters are faultless. In fact, the adults are all deeply flawed. They all struggle with demons that make them unattractive and worthy of being judged. Yet I felt like they were fighting against forces no human should have to overcome. Perhaps that’s why the ghosts are called upon to render assistance. But even they struggle with the past in ways that make their mission and its achievement uncertain.
The ghost’s uncertainty of purpose was part of why I gave this book 4 stars instead of 5. While I understand why ghosts were an appealing way to write this story, I found myself thinking Pop and Maw could have told it perhaps in an even more compelling way. They were haunted, as all the characters are, by the past, but unlike Richie and Given’s ghosts, they showed the way to navigate through the terror in flesh and blood. And there is little doubt in their lives about family being the reason they push on through their pain.
Despite this reservation, this is a book I would highly recommend to anyone that wants to understand better America’s past and how it continues to occupy a large swath of our present. Jesmyn Ward is a trustworthy guide for both.
Tom Funk is a recently retired judge, having served in the state courts of Illinois. Having heard thousands of short stories in his job, he started writing his own about 10 years ago. He has been published in Spitball, Altarwork, Anti-Heroin Chic and Cowboy Jamboree.