by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing revolves around a poor black family living on their backwoods farm in modern day Mississippi. Although the story is told from multiple points of view, Jojo, a 13-year old boy, is at the center. Jojo lives with his grandparents, whom he adores, his emotionally and often physically unavailable, drug-addicted mother, and his three-year-old sister, of whom he is fiercely protective and devoted to. Jojo’s grandfather is a hardened man with a lifetime of grief and bitterness behind him, and yet, his devotion to his family and almost reluctant tenderness toward them is evident. Jojo’s grandmother is bedridden in a darkened bedroom, dying of cancer. Leonie, Jojo’s mother, is haunted by her grief over her brother who was shot by white men when he was a shining football player in high school, and she spends most of her time in a meth-induced haze. Jojo’s white grandparents live nearby, but they have never acknowledged their black grandchildren. Although they serve as background characters, their anger is a formidable presence in the story.
Much of the story revolves around a harrowing car trip to retrieve Jojo’s white father from prison. Jojo doesn’t want to go, but he and his toddler sister are made to go by their mother Leonie, who has grandiose visions of making a fresh start once Michael is released from prison. She is aware of her sins towards her children and her parents, and envisions righting old wrongs and becoming a cohesive family – but in acts of constant self-sabotage, the fresh start is doomed from the beginning. Leonie is too far gone with meth, and even Michael, who just spent several years in prison for manufacturing and selling meth, gets high and falls right back into old behavior the moment he is released from prison. The entire trip, which spans two or three days, is steeped in high tension during which Leonie, her girlfriend who has come along on the trip, and Michael seeth in a drug-induced stupor, and Jojo and his small sister Kayla cower in the back seat. Kayla is so often mistreated by her parents that you just want to cry.
Featuring large in the story are the ghosts of Leonie’s dead brother, Given, and a 13-year old boy who was in prison with Pop, Leonie’s father and Jojo’s beloved grandfather, many years ago. These specters appear to Leonie and her son, and both haunt them and comfort them. They are the unburied, singing their songs of the past.
There is no redemption in this story. It is full of sadness, grief, and anger. There is great relief when Jojo and Kayla reach home again in one piece, but they are already broken, and the reader is left with little hope for their future, for although they have the love and devotion of the grandfather who is raising them, there is no escape from the poverty, racism, and parental neglect and abuse that are central features of their young lives.
It’s a heavy story that stays with you.