Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
Cover of the book sing, unburied, sing.jpg
AuthorJesmyn Ward
CountryUnited States
GenreSuspense, coming-of-age, literary fiction
Publication date
September 5, 2017
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Preceded byMen We Reaped 

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a 2017 novel by Jesmyn Ward. It is about a family's dynamics in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.[1] The novel received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.[2]

Publication history[edit]

Ward's third novel,[3] Sing, Unburied, Sing was published on September 5, 2017 by Scribner.[4]


Main characters[edit]

Joseph (Jojo) is one of the main characters. The story starts on his thirteenth birthday at his maternal grandparents' house in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo acts as a parent to his little sister, Kayla. He can understand the thoughts of animals and is sometimes able to communicate with ghosts.

Leonie is the daughter of River and Philomene and mother to Jojo and Kayla. She is one of the narrators of the story. Leonie is consumed by her love for Michael and is inattentive to the needs of her children.

River (Pop) is Jojo's maternal grandfather. He is the main parental figure in Jojo's life. He is quietly dignified and capable. Pop spent some time in Parchman prison when he was young.

Philomene (Mam) is Jojo and Kayla's maternal grandmother. 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.

Misty 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. He is white and comes from a racist family that doesn’t accept his relationship with Leonie or their kids. At the beginning of the novel, he is in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.

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.

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.

Richie knows River from their time spent together in Parchman. Richie is one of the narrators of the story and struggles to understand and accept his death.


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 got 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 both got sent to Parchman prison. It was there that Pop met Richie, a 12-year-old inmate. Leonie gets a call during the birthday celebration. It is Michael informing Leonie that he is coming home.

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 is dying.

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. They arrive 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 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 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 cop. There is no time to hide the meth Al gave them so Leonie swallows it. Leonie, without thinking, tells the cop that they are coming back from Parchman. The officer handcuffs Leonie. He also handcuffs Michael. Jojo walks out of the car with Michaela and the cop handcuffs him too. Jojo reaches into his pocket to grab the leather pouch 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 swallows 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 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 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 to get high at Al's house.

In the final chapter, Jojo explains that he sleeps in Leonie's bed now. Leonie and Michael only come back for two days out 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.


Reviewing the novel for The Washington Post, Ron Charles compared it to George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo and Toni Morrison's Beloved;[5] at NPR, Annalisa Quinn found it "reminiscent of As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner.[6]

Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction,[7] and was selected by Time magazine as one of its top ten novels of 2017.[8] Former U.S. President Barack Obama included the novel in a list of the best books he read in 2017.[9]


  1. ^ Smith, Tracy K. (2017-09-22). "In 'Sing, Unburied, Sing,' a Haunted Road Trip to Prison". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-06.
  2. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2017". New York Times. 30 November 2017. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  3. ^ Smith, Tracy K. (22 September 2017). "In 'Sing, Unburied, Sing,' a Haunted Road Trip to Prison". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  4. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2606-2". Publishers Weekly. July 3, 2017. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  5. ^ Charles, Ron (August 29, 2017). "Jesmyn Ward's powerful new novel, 'Sing, Unburied, Sing'". Washington Post. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  6. ^ Quinn, Annalisa (September 6, 2017). "'Sing' Mourns The Dead, Both Buried And Unburied". NPR. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  7. ^ "2017 National Book Awards". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 16 November 2017.
  8. ^ Begley, Sarah (November 21, 2017). "The Top 10 Novels of 2017". Time. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  9. ^ CNN, Kevin Liptak and Deena Zaru,. "Obama lists his favorite books, songs of 2017". CNN. Retrieved 2018-01-02.