My introduction to Mississippi author Jesmyn Ward’s novels was through her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.” This novel, which earned Ward a National Book Award for Fiction, made me fall in love with her storytelling. As such, I was very excited to read her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied Sing.”
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is set primarily on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The novel, ultimately, is a study of family and the bonds that forge them. The family follows the lives of Pop, Mam, Leonie and her boyfriend Michael, and their two children Jojo and Kayla. Leonie’s parents, Pop and Mam, are the primary caregivers for her two children, thirteen-year-old Jojo and three-year old Kayla, because Leonie is a serious drug addict and Michael is in prison. Biracial children Jojo and Kayla also know very little of Michael’s family because of his family’s deeply entrenched hatred of black people and interracial unions; Leonie is African-American and Michael is white. Leonie’s neglect and Michael’s absence make their intelligent and thoughtful son Jojo a rather somber young man who feels no real attachment to either of his parents. Instead, his devotion and love are given to Pop, the seriously ill Mam, and little Kayla. This serious lack of attachment to Leonie and Michael is what makes the journey to collect Michael from Parchman, Mississippi’s state penitentiary, in the Mississippi Delta whilst Mam grows sicker and sicker each day from her cancer all the more heartbreaking. The familial tension, along with the presence of the very real ghosts of Given, Leonie’s brother who was killed by Michael’s racist cousin, and Ritchie, a young boy who was in Parchman with Pop, make the story all the more haunting and tragic.
This novel is absolutely beautiful and an excellent example of how to do contemporary Southern Gothic literary fiction the right way. Ghosts and hoodoo are very real components of the backdrop for the novel that I found refreshing. I also enjoyed the alternating viewpoints throughout the book, because the reader is able to see the perspectives of Jojo, Leonie, and even one of the ghosts, Richie. While the story is beautiful, I must still deliver a warning that this novel might be triggering for some. Various characters in the book are racist, particularly towards black people, so racial slurs are used in different parts of the story. Rape and murder are also mentioned in the novel, and there are a few instances of physical abuse directed at children throughout the story. Although these are very real depictions of life in this time period, these If none of these topics are triggering for you, I would highly recommend Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” for a spooky read during the month of October. The following are some questions you may want to consider while or after reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing”:
- How much did you know about Parchman, Mississippi’s state penitentiary, prior to reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing”?
- Do you know any people who still practice hoodoo, which is African-American “root work”, or anyone is deeply connected the Voodoo religion?
- Were the prisoners in Parchman mentioned in the novel ever treated with respect and dignity? Regardless of the answer, what does their treatment say this about society at large and the treatment of prisoners and ex-convicts trying to reintegrate back into society?
- Do you believe in ghosts?
- Are attitudes changing in regards to interracial couples in the Deep South? If so, how are they changing?