By: Kimberly Brown
Life, death, race, and family: all concepts that Jesmyn Ward navigates through to accomplish the wholeness of her novel Sing Unburied Sing. Considering that her book Salvage the bones won the National Book Award in 2011, Men We Reaped was on the bestseller list and best book of the year list in 2013, and she was praised by the Essence book club, there’s no wonder why Sing Unburied Sing has again claimed her the National Book Award for 2017. Being from Mississippi, her books follow that same geographical likeness: all being set somewhere in the south.
Jojo, a newly thirteen-year-old, has hit the age where “what does it mean to be a man” is the main question of the novel. With his biological mother, Leonie, having a heavy drug use problem, barely involved with his life , and his biological father, Michael, in prison, he and his younger sister, Kayla, are taken care of by his maternal grandparents, Mam and Pop. He is very attuned to the afterlife and is able to hear animals and talk to ghosts. He mainly gets his lessons of manhood from his pop, hearing stories of when his grandfather was in the penitentiary Parchman. Jojo learns how to be a man by going on a trip with his mom, his mom’s friend, Misty, and his younger sister to go and get his dad when he is finally released from prison.
There is something to be said about all her books being set in the south, particularly set in her very home: De liste, Mississippi. It provides a home-like feeling to the books. Her usage of dialect and the accuracy of the places that are in the books heighten the credibility of her books.
Ward’s writing is very powerful and intense without being forceful. As chapters go by, Leonie gets a chance to be heard. From her, readers discover that her love for Michael, and getting high all the time, is stronger than her relationship with Jojo and Kayla; constantly getting in the way of her wanting to be a better mother to them. While trying to grasp a stable relationship in life, Ward touches on the afterlife with the ghost of Richie, the ghost of a boy who was in prison with Pop. He’s still around because he needs Pop to tell Jojo the end of the story he repeats time and time again to him. There is also the ghost of Leonie’s brother, Given. It is revealed that he died because he and some of his white friends who he thought he was safe around went hunting. Because he was so good, one of the other boys got upset, resulting in irrational actions taking place. Even though they are ghosts, they are just as important as all of the other characters.
Ward draws on the light versus dark theme by adding in a good and bad angel in the story; the ghost of Given being the good one and the ghost of Richie being the bad one. Given, comes around when Leonie gets high, but he is also present because when Mam, who is dying from cancer passes over, he is there to take her to the other side. The ghost of Richie is trying to take Mam to the dark side. Ward intentionally works with these two spectrums of color to bring one aspect of the book to a close. Although it’s not very big, there are moments that make a big impact on the novel: how Given dies, the fact that Michael is white while Leonie is black. The dynamic between the couple and Michaels father is nowhere near being amiable.
There is a vulnerability, a quietness, and intensity all happening in the same instance. Vulnerable because Ward is essentially putting a little of herself in this book; quietness because issues don’t really get talked about, often only in silent conversations going on between characters; intense because there is so much that happens: Jojo being the main caretaker of Kayla, Leonie’s abuse of drugs which leaves her into a state of excessive high, Mam dying, Pop trying to stay strong, Michael having to start all over with being a part of his children’s life.
Through the lens of Jojo, Leonie, and the ghost of Richie, all of the different frames mentioned in the beginning are looked at closely and flushed out. Ward brings to the forefront some concepts that are familial, setting a guide of how readers talk about this book during conversation. Sing Unburied Sing is a page turner, an emotional rollercoaster, and it keeps you on your toes. It is a must read, if you like ghost this is the book for you. If you love dealing with race, this is the book for you. If you are an advocate for family bonding, this is surely the book for you. In the end, all the pieces of the puzzle come together.