Book: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Age/Genre: Coming of Age Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: A road trip would be fun, since the family goes on one.
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite comfort foods. The food a caregiver made when you were sick as a kid. Something that makes you feel loved.
Content Notes: racism, murder, violence, drugs, child neglect
I was given Sing, Unburied, Sing by my friend Deana for Christmas this year. She had already read it and was excited to talk to me about it. She did warn me that it was pretty intense, and I was excited to dig in.
In the blurbs and reviews for this book, there are a lot of comparisons to Faulkner. I haven’t read As I Lay Dying, which is the main comparison I saw, but I do see similarities a lot of books I read in high school English, like Grapes of Wrath. It uses a fictional family’s experiences to illustrate class structure and societal issues in a specific region of the United States. Though the plot is fictional, the setting is very reality-based, and with the right prompting, students could learn a lot about the country’s history. The existence of labor prisons and different ways racism has been accepted as the norm long past slavery are the main historical points that immediately come to mind.
I will tell you now, this book is bleak (another reason Grapes of Wrath came to mind). There are a lot of uncomfortable moments, and there isn’t a lot of relief from the tension. The way it shows the world is painful, but it shows that pain through beautiful prose.
Each chapter of the book is narrated by one character. Most of the chapters are told from the perspectives of JoJo and Leonie, but Richie has a few chapters later in the book as well.
JoJo is thirteen. At the beginning of the book, he is being taken out back by his grandpa to help slaughter a goat. This is somewhat of a rite of passage, and also a birthday present. The goat meat is a treat for JoJo’s birthday, and he wants to show his grandpa that he’s not squeamish around the realities of death.
We learn from JoJo that his grandparents, River and Philomena, are his and his toddler sister, Kayla’s, primary caregivers. JoJo takes care of Kayla, sleeping with her, soothing her, and making sure she eats. Their mom, Leonie, technically lives at the house, but spends most of her time caught up in her own stuff, namely drugs. Their dad, Michael, has been in jail for three years for making meth. JoJo refers to his parents by their first names, and his grandparents as Mam and Pop. A large part of the plot revolves around the family driving the day-long drive to Parchman to get Michael, who is being released.
Leonie is a terrible mother. I don’t say this in a “tsk tsk she lets her kids eat junk food and kids these days have no discipline” sort of way. Leonie does not provide for her children and doesn’t have much of a desire to. She hits them, she eats and does not give them food, and she treats them as the burdens that she feels they are.
That’s not to say that Leonie is a completely unsympathetic character. We see her life and why it’s hard. Her brother, Given, was killed in high school by a white football teammate because he won a contest. It was deemed a hunting accident and no one was prosecuted. When Leonie is high, she sees an apparition of her brother. I felt like Jesmyn Ward really showed a lot of the reasons that Leonie is the way she is, without excusing her behavior. We see the systems that push her toward the choices she makes, and how she feels trapped.
Weaved into Jojo’s part of the narrative are stories that his grandpa has told him about his time in Parchman, the prison that Michael is currently in. River was put in the prison at 15 because his brother got into a fight with some white kids. He spent 5 years there, first working the fields, then watching after the dogs. River tells his grandson about the horrible things he saw and a kid named Richie, who he took under his wing.
About halfway through the book, Richie’s spirit becomes a character and narrates a couple chapters. He joins Jojo after the family picks up Michael from Parchman. He’s looking for closure about his death, thinking it will free him and let him go “home.” River has never told Jojo how Richie died, and JoJo is sure he doesn’t want to hear that part of the story.
A main point of tension in the book is the relationship between Michael and Leonie’s families. Michael is white; Leonie is black. Michael’s cousin is the the kid who shot Leonie’s brother, and his father was the sheriff who deemed it a hunting accident. (Don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers – the book presents these facts early on and it’s never a point of surprise). The families do not talk – Leonie has only spoken with Michael’s parents a handful of times. They are openly racist and have no desire to have a relationship with their grandchildren. Leonie’s parents aren’t happy about all of her choices, but they do what they can to support her and her children. There’s a great scene that shows her mother laying out some of her options in a very non-judgemental, supportive way. Philomena and River have had hard lives and they’ve learned to accept what comes their way and try their best to work around it.
I found Michael and Leonie’s relationship really interesting. The two are very affectionate, and Leonie seems to center Michael really heavily in her life. To me, they seemed like two people who really cared for each other and the main problem in their relationship is that they aren’t suited to be parents. (The racial tension mentioned above factors heavily in their lives, but not, that we see, in their interactions with each other). Philomena tells JoJo at one point that she believes Leonie will never provide (physically or emotionally) for her children, and that that’s why she and River try so hard to give them a safe home.
I mentioned earlier that this book had beautiful prose. When I say that, I mean that the words flowed almost lyrically, and had a descriptive quality that painted a vivid image in my mind. Throughout the book, Ward intersperses poetic elements that paint a vibrant and engaging picture. This comes out especially in River’s storytelling and in the last few chapters. I particularly liked the ending’s use of the poetic elements that had been peppered throughout. It was a beautiful culmination of poetry and prose.
I’m not surprised at all that this was on the New York Times Bestseller list and has book club notes and suggestions in the back. If you’re looking for a book that prompts deep thought and compelling conversation, this is definitely a good pick.
Have you read anything by Jesmyn Ward? Let us know what you thought in the comments!