Photo of Jesmyn Ward at Politics and Prose, Washington D.C.
Review by Paula Farmer
JESMYN WARD PENS A NEW CLASSIC
Just a few paragraphs in to Jesmyn Ward’s novel “Sing Unburied, Sing,” and it’s easy to understand why it was the winner of this year’s National Book Award. It is a beautiful and haunting story that takes the reader from the home of a small non-traditional family in Mississippi, to a road trip and back. Although it is a contemporary story, it has the feel of something taking place in the deep South of the 60s or 70s. Maybe it is the absence of middle-class angst, chatter and technology that transcends time. Or it could be attributed to the fact that the featured family is from a poor rural area of costal Mississippi. Characters are not downloading apps or talking on their smart phones. The pacing is slower, thoughtful, but by no means lacking movement or intrigue. Ward’s distinct style is intimate, raw and literary. Whatever it is, it works, and then some. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has the makings of a modern classic in the vein of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
This is Ward’s first novel since her other National Book Award winning novel “Salvage the Bones.” For “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” readers are taken on journey of hope and struggle that is both epic and personal as seen from the point of view of several key characters, both alive and dead. 12-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla are the offspring of a bi-racial couple, their mother, Leonie, who is Black, and their father, Michael, is white. They live with their maternal grandparents (Pop and Mam) and their young, drug-addicted mother while their father is serving time in a predominantly Black prison several hundred miles away. Leonie is not only tormented by her emotional and drug addition demons, she is also haunted and comforted by visions of her dead brother. Although she does not have a maternalistic bone in her body, she decides to include her children on a road trip to pick up their father who’s been recently released. The trip is fraught with danger and personal growth. They eventually return home having to confront the reality of their new family dynamics, life and death. Not only does Leonie’s ghost reappear, but Jojo begins to have vision of Richie, a ghost of his own.
Last night, Richie crawled under the house and sang. I listened to it rise up through the floor, and I couldn’t sleep. Pop turned his backc to us as he slept and coughed, over and over again. Kayla woke to whimpering every half hour, and I shushed her over the sound of the singing. We all slept late, but Pop has risen by the time I get up from the sofa. Kayla throws her arm over where I slept, and I pull the sheet over her. It’s almost noon when I walk out to the yard, to see the boy crouched in the tree outside Mam’s window. Somewhere out in the back, I hear Pop’s axe swish and thud.
Ward’s themes of family, racism, addiction and incarceration are woven together seamlessly and beautifully. It all results in an emotional knock out of a new American classic.