The novel ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ by Jesmyn Ward is, essentially, two different stories happening at once: a road-trip story and a story about a multi-generational family in Mississippi coming undone under the weight and history of American racism and mass incarceration. It’s the story of thirteen-year-old Jojo and his three-year-old sister Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pap, on a farm in Mississippi. Jojo’s mom, Leonie, only cares about getting high and about Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father. Leonie is gone more often than she is present in her children’s lives, although she struggles internally to be there, she simply can’t beat her addictions. When Michael is scheduled to be released from prison, Leonie decides to take her two children on the long drive to pick him up from the state prison. Weaved into this story, is a ghost story and family history that follows every character. At its heart, ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ is about the generational pains of injustice and how none of us can escape it. Like any town in America, racism still exists and terrible things can and do happen to good people. Some of the characters are difficult to like, but you want them to succeed anyway, if not for themselves, then at least for their children.
Told through a first-person lens, the story starts with Jojo on his thirteenth birthday, but continues chapter through chapter from the point of view of several different characters, like Pap and Leonie. A deep sadness cloaks the entire book, from beginning to end. There is not one moment of joy in this book, which is hard to endure but necessary for its conclusion. When Jojo is spending time with his grandfather Pap, it’s while they’re slaughtering an animal or remembering sad family history, which is why the writing feels so real. The plot, the writing and the pacing are all purposeful and deliberate, but characters like Leonie are difficult to care about – even though you understand her pain. During the road trip, you know something terrible is going to happen and when it does, you know none of the characters are going to be the same. Most of the situations feel real (even the ghosts, oddly enough) and the way Ward deals with themes of history, family and memory is not precious, but authentic. The climax is tragic and heartbreaking and leaves none of the characters untouched. This subject matter in a lesser writer’s hand wouldn’t have worked but Jesmyn Ward’s knowledge of Mississippi, her empathy for her characters combined with her timing and lyricism makes for a heavy, lasting warning for generations to come: Fight your demons, before they fight you.