Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


This National Book Award winner is truly an amazing book. I hardly know how to convey its strength.

The narrative passes among three characters: A 13-year-old boy, his addicted mother, and one of the unburied. As unpromising as this seems, the story of a road trip by Leonie, her son Jojo, her three-year-old daughter, and her druggie friend Misty to pick up her boyfriend (the kids' father) from prison is gripping. Each narrative both conveys the character's words and thoughts and is not limited to their likely vocabulary and knowledge. The story reaches back to the horrors of Jim Crow in Mississippi, lynchings, the inhumanity of Parchman prison, to the unmitigated racial hatred and seemingly inescapable meth addiction of the present.

And yet the humanity of all the characters pulls you in. Leonie's much loved mother and her strong and forthright father care for Leonie's children. Leonie is capable of acts of sacrifice and recognizes the horror of her addiction even while she is cruel and uncaring. She and her drug-using white boyfriend have an attraction to each other that is as strong as an addiction and not too healthy for themselves and their children. Jojo is little Kayla's caretaker and the only one who can comfort her. His anger toward Leonie is unrelenting.

Two "unburieds" have a role. Leonie's much loved older brother, killed by a white man in a hunting "accident," appears to her when she is high. The other is Richie who has chapters himself to tell his story. He appears to Jojo shortly after they arrive at Parchman; Jojo knew part of his story from his grandfather who had tried to protect Richie when he arrived at Parchman as a boy. Richie cannot rest until he knows the whole of his own story from River (Jojo's grandfather). The beauty of the soaring language in Richie's thoughts is moving.

When I woke up in the night while reading this book, I worried about one or another of these characters. 

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Scribner, 2017, 292 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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