Sing, Unburied, Sing
|Genre||Suspense, coming-of-age, literary fiction|
|September 5, 2017|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||Men We Reaped|
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel by American author Jesmyn Ward and published by Scribner in 2017. It is about a family's dynamics in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The novel received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.
Joseph (Jojo) is one of the main characters, and also one of the three narrators of the book. He is the child of Michael who is White, and Leonie, who is Black. The story starts on his thirteenth birthday at his maternal grandparents' house in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo throughout the book is often acting like the parent to Kayla because his mother Leonie was not always there. Jojo looks up to his grandfather, and wishes to be like him. Throughout the book, Jojo has many conversations with spirits while helping them move on.
Leonie is the daughter of River and Philomene, and mother to Jojo and Kayla. She is one of the three narrators of the story. Leonie got pregnant at a young age, not certain of wanting to be a mother, since then she has been a mentally absent mother who focused mostly on her love for Michael. Leonie becomes a drug addict, which the high allows her to see her dead brother, Given. Leonie is consumed by her love for Michael and is inattentive to the needs of her children. She is also jealous of her children's relationship because it reminds her of the brother she lost too early in life.
River (Pop) is Jojo's and Kayla's maternal grandfather. He is the Father to Leonie and Given. He is the main parental figure in Jojo's life, which makes him the role model JoJo looks up to. He is quietly dignified and capable. Pop spent some time in Parchman prison when he was young and developed a "care giver" relationship with another inmate, Richie. Often shares stories about his time in Parchman with Jojo.
Philomene (Mam) is Jojo and Kayla's maternal grandmother. She is the mother to Leonie and Given. She comes from a long line of women who have been able to heal and communicate with dead people. Mam steps up to look after Jojo and Kayla when she realizes Leonie does not care enough about her children. Mam is sick with cancer when the novel begins. This causes her to be stuck inside the bedroom from chemo treatments, ultimately forcing Leonie to try stepping up as a motherly figure.
Misty who is Leonie's white friend from work. Misty and Leonie are bound to each other by their drug addiction. Misty joins Leonie on the road trip to Parchman to pick up Michael after his release.
Michael is Leonie's boyfriend and the father of Jojo and Kayla. He is white and comes from a racist family that doesn’t accept his relationship with Leonie or their kids. Michael, however, is not racist. At the beginning of the novel, he is in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, for drug trafficking. He then joins his family after Leonie and their children pick him up. Like Leonie, Michael is an absent parent who also does drugs.
Michaela (Kayla) is Jojo's three-year-old little sister. She interacts with Jojo as a parental figure and prefers him to her mother, Leonie. Kayla, like Jojo, is able to see ghosts. Kayla is given the final word of "shh" to her brother. Kayla is emblematic of the future. Through Kayla's voice in the final scene, Ward ends this novel on an optimistic note.
Given is Leonie's older brother who was shot on a hunting trip by Michael's cousin when he was a senior in high school. Leonie sees Given's ghost throughout the novel, especially after she uses drugs. It is not until the second to last chapter when Given's ghost is freed, and Leonie does not see him anymore.
Richie knows River from their time spent together in Parchman. He was placed in Parchman at twelve years old for stealing food for his nine siblings. He tried to escape later with an inmate named Blue and both were killed. His ghost follows JoJo back to Pop after JoJo arrives to pick up his father from Parchman because he does not know how he died. Richie is one of the three narrators of the story and struggles to understand and accept his death.
Big Joseph is Michael's father. He does not have a healthy relationship with his son and the rest of the family because Michael decided to be in a relationship with Leonie, an African-American woman. Big Joseph was present at the trial for his nephew shooting Leonie’s brother prior to her and Michael’s relationship which adds to Leonie’s discomfort with Big Joseph. When Michael, Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla visit him, it results in Big Joseph and Michael physically fighting.
Maggie is Michael's mother. She, also, does not have a healthy relationship with her son. Unlike her husband, she is seen wanting to make an effort with her son. She inhospitably welcomes Michael, Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla into their home, in an effort to salvage her relationship with her son.
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It is Jojo's thirteenth birthday. To step into his new role as a man, Jojo tries to bravely help his grandfather, Pop, kill a goat. Jojo ends up throwing up at the sight although Pop is sympathetic. Pop uses the goat to make stew and while the food is cooking, he tells Jojo about his family. Pop tells Jojo about how he was sent to Parchman when he was 15. Pop's older brother, Stag, got into a bar fight with some white navy officers. The officers came after Stag and also took Pop, who was home at that time. They were both sent to Parchman prison. It was there that Pop met Richie, a 12-year-old inmate. But Leonie gets a call during the birthday celebration. It is Michael, Jojo and Kayla's father, informing Leonie that he is coming home from prison where he has been for three years.
The next day, Leonie argues with Pop about whether she should take Jojo and Kayla with her on the trip. At Mam's suggestion, she invites her coworker Misty, whose boyfriend is also in Parchman. While she talks to her mom, Leonie realizes that Mam's cancer is getting worse.
During the car ride, Jojo finds a gris-gris bag from Pop with instructions to keep it close. He also recalls Pop telling him about Kinnie Wagner, a white inmate who looked after the dogs at Parchman (based on the real-life Kenny Wagner). Because of Pop's affinity with animals, Kinnie chooses him to help look after the dogs. Leonie's party arrives at the house of a white woman, and Jojo walks around and finds a man cooking meth. Misty leaves the woman's house with a bag of meth which she tries to hide from Jojo and Kayla. Back in the car, Kayla starts to get sick and throw up. Leonie remembers Mam teaching her about plants that help with an upset stomach. Leonie needs wild strawberries but is only able to find wild blackberries.
Jojo holds Kayla and tries to comfort her by telling her stories. Eventually, they pull over to Al, Michael's lawyer's house. Leonie cooks the blackberry leaves. Jojo doesn’t trust Leonie and doesn’t think the wild blackberries will help but he is afraid Leonie will hit him if he says anything. After Leonie, Misty, and Al leave the room, Jojo forces Kayla to throw up Leonie's mixture. Instead of sleeping, Jojo recalls Pop telling him about when Richie got whipped for breaking his hoe and Kinnie escaped from Parchman. In the morning they drive to Parchman and check Michael out of prison. When Michael comes out, he embraces Leonie. He tries to hold Kayla but she doesn’t recognize him. Kayla throws up again. Jojo looks outside the car and sees the ghost of a dark skinned boy, Richie.
The next chapter is narrated by Richie. He recognizes Jojo as Pop's child. He recalls how Pop protected him while they were in Parchman. No one in the car but Jojo and Kayla can see Richie.
On the drive back, they are pulled over by a police officer. There is no time to hide the meth Al gave them, so Leonie swallows it. Leonie, without thinking, tells the officer that they are coming back from Parchman. The officer handcuffs Leonie. He also handcuffs Michael. Jojo walks out of the car with Michael and the officer handcuffs him too. Jojo reaches into his pocket to grab the gris-gris bag Pop gave him and the officer pulls out his gun on him. Misty drops Kayla, who runs to Jojo and wraps herself around him. Kayla throws up on the officer and he lets them go.
Back in the car, Leonie, who is high from the meth she swallowed, becomes sick. Michael pulls over at a gas station and gives Jojo money to buy milk and charcoal. Leonie drinks the mixture and throws up. Richie tells Jojo that he tried to run from Parchman but died in the process. He doesn’t remember what happened and he needs Pop to tell him so he can go home. Richie was only able to leave Parchman when Jojo showed up.
When they arrive back at the house, they realize that Mam and Pop are not in the house. Michael wants to go to his parents' house but Leonie doesn’t want to. She eventually gives in. When they arrive at Michael's parents' house, at first Michael's mother, Maggie, is civil and urges Michael's dad, Big Joseph, to do the same. Big Joseph is unable to restrain himself and calls Leonie a slur. Michael head-butts Big Joseph and they start fighting. They drive back home where Pop and Mam have returned. Leonie goes and she tells Leonie to gather necessary items to perform a ritual to summon Maman Brigitte, a death loa in voodoo. Once they get back home, Richie sees Pop and tries to talk to him, but Pop can’t see him.
Jojo asks Pop about what happened to Richie and Pop finally tells Jojo. A man named Blue raped one of the female inmates at Parchman. Richie catches Blue in the act and escapes Parchman with him. While they are running, Blue happens upon a white girl and rips her dress. Because of this, the local white population is looking for revenge through lynching. Pop knows that the white men won't make a distinction between Blue and Richie. When the white men catch up with Blue and Richie, they skin Blue alive and cut off parts of his body. To protect Richie from the same fate, Pop stabs him in the neck. Pop has been haunted by this action ever since. After he tells Jojo the story, he breaks down into tears and Jojo consoles him. Richie screams and disappears.
Leonie enters Mam's room to find her in a terrible state. Her room smells like rot. Mam tells Leonie that it is too late. Mam sees Richie on the ceiling. He is vengeful. Richie shouts at Mam, urging her to come with him, but Given shouts at him that Mam is not his mother. Jojo and Pop run in and Leonie jumps into action and begins saying the litany to summon Maman Brigitte. Jojo tells Richie to leave because nobody owes him anything anymore. Richie leaves and Given takes Mam with him. Mam dies. Michael comes back and he and Leonie leave.
In the final chapter, Jojo explains that he sleeps in Leonie's bed now. Leonie and Michael only come back for two days out of every week, and then they leave again. Pop sleeps in Mam's room now and he talks to himself at night, searching for Mam. Although he hoped he will, Jojo is not able to see Mam and Given, he only sees Richie. He also sees other ghosts who have all died through violent means. Kayla tells the ghosts to go home but they don’t listen to her. She begins to sing and they all smile with relief.
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Sing, Unburied, Sing is the first of Ward's novels to introduce a supernatural element. A dead boy, Ritchie, is one of the narrators, and other ghosts are found throughout the novel as they tie the past to the present and future. Likewise, Mam and Pop project the belief in spirituality through gris-gris bags, which contain objects of nature that are assumed to administer power for humans. In the novel, the spiritual connection between nature and man is prevalent through their African-based traditions.
The novel demonstrates the afterlife of slavery in America. Songs and story-telling play a role in building resilience. Singing to the unresting spirits at the end of the story, Kayla represents hope for the future.
Another theme is of family, for it offers differing insights into the roles of parenting. Though they care for Jojo and Kayla, Leonie and Michael are absent mother and father figures. They tend to dissociate themselves from their responsibilities through drug usage. Thus, Jojo looks to his Pop and Mam as the family's caretakers. Jojo also takes on the task of being Kayla's guardian, protecting her in any way he can.
Racial relations is also discussed in this novel through the family's interracial dynamics. Though Michael appears to love Leonie despite their differing skin colors, his family sternly disapproves of the life he leads. The character of Michael's father, Big Joseph, showcases the lingering tensions of white supremacy in the South. He protects Michael's cousin after killing Given, since the cousin was upholding Southern ideals of Black inferiority. In the same manner, Big Joseph rejects his own son, Michael, for defying this tradition with his bi-racial children. 
Finally, the theme of water offers much significance in the novel. Water symbolizes the processes of nurturing and developing. Those with water, like River and Mam (who is referred to as the saltwater woman), are able to bloom. Meanwhile, those without water, like those in "Parchman," are withering away without such subsistence, unable to find peace and stability. Even the setting in the Mississippi Delta may suggest the importance of water in the novel.
Reviewing the novel for The Washington Post, Ron Charles compared it to George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo and Toni Morrison's Beloved; at NPR, Annalisa Quinn found it "reminiscent of As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner.
Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. This was her second time winning this award. Ward is the first woman and first person of color to receive this honor twice.
The novel was selected by Time magazine and The New York Times as one of the top ten novels of 2017. It is also acclaimed as one of the best novels of the year by the New Statesman, the Financial Times, and BBC, all of which are located in London.
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