Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward
"The memory is a living thing---it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives---the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead." - from One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty
This was my first foray into the literary world of Jesmyn Ward. Her first novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award. So I had high expectations for Sing, Unburied, Sing, her second novel. I was not disappointed. In this novel she demonstrates her skills as a unique American writer by bringing the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Welty, Morrison, and Faulkner---The Odyssey and the Old Testament, she provides an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle.
Ward succeeds in this by sharing the story of the members of an extended family that includes thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Added to these family members is the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.
Ward's poetically lyrical writing style is present throughout the novel with the story told primarily from the point of view of Jojo and his mother Leonie. Meanwhile, the ghost of a youth who had been killed while escaping the Parchman Farm, who joins them on their visit there, and who can only be seen and heard by young Jojo, adds to the bleak story a poignancy that is almost breathtaking.
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with some of the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a wonderful new contribution to the literature of the American South. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by a relatively new author at the height of her powers.