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'Sing, Unburied, Sing' is a road novel, a ghost story, a family epic

It’s easy to see why Ward’s new novel has been called a 'Beloved' for the incarcerated generation, but there are also echoes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner
304 pp.

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Some novels will break your heart from the very first sentence. Sing, Unburied, Sing is one of those. 

“I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight,” Jojo says on the occasion of his 13th birthday.

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Jojo and his baby sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Pop and Mam, in Mississippi. Their dad, Michael, is up in Parchman prison, and their mom, Leonie, is mostly gone or high. Like Esch, the teenage protagonist from Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning 2011 novel “Salvage the Bones,” Jojo hails from the fictional town of Bois Savage. In that novel, a family was trying to escape hurricane Katrina. In this case, rather than a flood, it’s a flood of memories that threatens to destroy.

The fate of two 13-year-old boys hangs in the balance – and the fact that one is dead in no way lowers the stakes.

After three years in Parchman on drug charges, Michael – who used to be a welder on the Deepwater Horizon before it exploded – is due to be released. And Leonie is determined his whole family will be there to bring him home. For insurance, she also brings along her friend Misty and a stash of drugs to sell along the way. 

When he was a teenager himself, Pop wound up in Parchman for five years thanks to his brother. Unable to protect him, since they were housed in different barracks, Pop (then known as River), took the youngest inmate of the prison under his own still-growing wing. 

“Richie, he was called. Real name was Richard, and he wasn’t nothing but twelve years old. He was in for three years for stealing food: salted meat,” Pop tells Jojo. “Lot of folks was in there for stealing food because everybody was poor and starving, and even though White people couldn’t get your work for free, they did everything they could to avoid hiring you and paying you for it.” 

“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” like “Salvage the Bones,” has been nominated for the National Book Award, and it’s frankly hard to imagine the award going to a different novel. Ward writes with the economy of a poet. Rather than a muse, she seems to have channeled the spirit of one of the Kindly Ones, the Erinyes of Greek mythology.

Unlike Kayla, Jojo remembers what family life was like when he still called Leonie “mom.”

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“That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on the sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head,” he thinks. “Before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee.”

Leonie has her own memories, tangled up in her love for Michael, whose cousin murdered her brother when they were all teenagers and whose father is enough of a racist that he'd turn a gun on his daughter-in-law. 

Unable to depend on their mother, Jojo and Kayla turn to each other, and the most tender passages in the book are between the teenager and the toddler.

While the whole family is haunted, Jojo and his mother are the ones who can actually see the ghosts. Every time Leonie gets high, she’s visited by the spirit of her brother Given. 

Once he gets to Parchman, Jojo finds the difference between then and now blurring. “I look out at the fields but I don’t see birds. I squint and for a second I see men bent at the waist, row after row of them, looking like a great murder of crows landed and chattering and picking for bugs in the ground.”

The shortest one of those, Richie, hitches a ride home. 

It’s easy to see why Ward’s new novel has been called a “Beloved” for the incarcerated generation, but there are also echoes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Readers of the memoir “Men We Reaped,” Ward’s chronicle about the five young men she lost – including her brother – will also hear grace notes from that wrenching work. 

At just 304 pages long, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a road novel, a ghost story, a family epic, and damning testimony bearing witness to terrible crimes. It is also unforgettable.