Read by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, Rutina Wesley
Published Published September 2017 by Scribner
Source: purchased my print copy, checked out audiobook copy from my library
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
My god, does Jesmyn Ward know how to rip your heart out of your chest. Ward makes readers see what it's like to live your life without hope of something better. The pain of these characters is so raw. I needed there to be a bad guy, someone to blame for what was happening to these characters. But the bad guy here isn't a character in this book. But then, you already know that.
She is not alone in her grieving. Pop and Mam are grieving Given as well. They are all grieving Mam who has not yet succumbed to the cancer that is slowly killing her. But she is already gone from their lives in so many ways. And Pop is carrying a grief that none of them know about. That will come out in the stories Pop tells Jojo about his time in Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a young man and the boy he tried to save.
I bought this book shortly after it came out but for some reason I never picked it up. When I saw I could get the audiobook, I grabbed it. I cannot recommend the audiobook highly enough. The readers are all excellent and add so much to the story. In fact, I'm not sure I would have felt the way I came to feel about Leonie were it not for Retina Wesley's reading.
Things got a little hard to follow toward the end of the book. The supernatural element that Ward had used so effectively to tell her tale really took over the book and, for me at least, things got a little muddled. It is to Ward's credit that I had been, until that point, perfectly fine with the supernatural element as it is something I often struggle with in a book. For those who don't have that problem, the ending may not bother you.
I don't know that I will be able to read this book again but I will probably keep it on my shelf. Just the sight of it while be a good reminder of this country's dark past and the way that past continues to echo through the generations.