WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Where the Line Bleeds. Agate Publishing, 2008. Print. (Novel)
- Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011. Print. (Novel)
- Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Print. (Memoir)
- The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Edited by Jesmyn Ward. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2016. Print. (Essays and poetry)
- Sing, Unburied, Sing. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2017. Print. (Novel)
Coordinating Scholar: Brian Railsback
The winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, the novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (1977- ), has been praised for its lyrical prose and the emotional resonance of its characters’ struggles with the weight of both past and present poverty, racial prejudice, and trauma. A somber, complex tale about a mixed-race Mississippi family taking a road trip to a state penitentiary while accompanied by ghosts, the novel is strongly reminiscent of the work of William Faulkner, whose novel As I Lay Dying (1930) depicts a journey by a similarly tormented, memory-haunted family. The supernatural content of Ward’s novel has also encouraged comparisons with Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), both of which also prominently feature ghosts. Sing, Unburied, Sing was well received by critics, and it is generally regarded as a major novel of 2017.
Plot and Major Characters
Sing, Unburied, Sing begins on the thirteenth birthday of Jojo, a biracial Mississippi youth living in the fictitious coastal town of Bois Sauvage, the setting of Ward’s two previous novels, Where the Line Bleeds (2008) and Salvage the Bones (2011), winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. Jojo lives on an impoverished farm with his maternal grandparents; his three-year-old sister, Michaela (Kayla); and his black mother, Leonie. Jojo’s first-person narration alternates with Leonie’s throughout the novel. During Jojo’s birthday celebration, Leonie learns through a telephone call that Michael, her white boyfriend and the father of her children, will soon be released from Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi state maximum-security penitentiary. Leonie subsequently embarks upon a long road trip to pick up Michael, bringing along Jojo and Kayla, as well as Misty, a friend from the bar where she works. Her father, River (Pop), remains behind to take care of her mother, Philomène (Mam), who is bedridden and dying of cancer.
Most of the rest of the novel consists of Jojo’s and Leonie’s alternating accounts of the journey, which is marked by frequent tension over Leonie’s parental inattention, her drug addiction, and Kayla’s strong preference for her brother, Jojo, over her mother, Leonie. Meanwhile, the family’s backstory is revealed in reminiscences and embedded accounts from Mam and Pop. Jojo repeatedly reflects on Pop’s story of his own incarceration as an adolescent at Parchman, where he protected a younger inmate named Richie. Leonie remembers her youthful romance with Michael, which began shortly after Michael’s cousin murdered Leonie’s brother Given. Leonie now sees Given’s ghost whenever she is under the influence of drugs. Jojo also experiences extrasensory perception, often reading the thoughts of Kayla and various animals.
The travelers arrive at Parchman and are reunited with Michael. They are also unexpectedly joined by the ghost of Richie, who is only visible to Jojo and Kayla. Richie becomes the novel’s third narrator, though the chapters presented from his point of view are relatively brief. He reveals that he does not know the circumstances of his death; neither does Jojo, because Pop never revealed that part of the story. Richie hopes to discover his fate by accompanying the family back home and eliciting the truth from Pop, his former protector, thereby freeing himself from his ghostly existence. The return trip is often hectic, and the travelers become fractious.
After the family reaches home, Richie finds that Pop cannot see or hear him and prevails upon a reluctant Jojo to intermediate. Pop then reveals that Richie fled from Parchman in the company of a violent and mentally ill inmate named Blue, who was later skinned alive and cut into pieces when the search party caught up with him. After discovering Richie’s hiding place, Pop killed him in order to prevent him from suffering Blue’s fate, a choice that has haunted Pop ever since. Richie screams in anguish at Pop’s account and momentarily disappears. Mam later asks Leonie to conduct a supernatural ritual to allow Mam to depart the mortal plane. Given’s ghost takes Mam’s spirit away with him, and she dies.
The final chapter takes place a period of time after the trip; Jojo notes that Leonie and Michael now return home a couple of days a week, only to go away again, and that they have both become “fish-thin.” Although both Mam’s and Given’s ghosts are presumably gone forever, Richie’s ghost remains, apparently unable to leave. The novel ends ambiguously with Jojo and the others gazing upon a tree full of ghosts, all wracked with the memories of their violent deaths. Kayla sings to them and tells them to “go home,” and they respond with apparent relief, saying “yes” and repeating the word “home.”
A central concern of Sing, Unburied, Sing is the overpowering influence of the past on individual lives. Every major character is haunted—sometimes literally—by traumas and losses suffered years or decades before. The novel repeatedly emphasizes the complex and far-reaching effects of these influences, which stretch well beyond the lives of the people directly affected. For example, although Richie died long before Jojo was born, Jojo becomes obligated to bring Richie’s ghost to Pop in the hope of laying Richie’s spirit to rest. The frequently painful intrusion of the past on the present is reflected in Jojo’s resentment of the unwanted imposition of Richie’s presence.
The same motif applies to broader social realities through the novel’s depiction of poverty, racial prejudice, and the ongoing legacy of slavery which continue to shape and distort the characters’ lives. During the journey back to the family farm, the travelers are pulled over by a police officer, who immediately handcuffs Leonie and Michael and points a gun at Jojo after Leonie tells him they are returning from Parchman. The officer’s subsequent search of the car turns up nothing because just as they were being pulled over Leonie hurriedly swallowed the small bag of meth they had with them. Later, Michael’s reunion with his parents devolves into a physical altercation between Michael and his openly racist father, who deeply resents his son’s relationship with Leonie.
The notion of home arises throughout the novel through characters who wish for a greater sense of belonging within their families and communities. The novel features both literal and figurative homecomings but generally withholds the sense of closure and redemption the characters hope these homecomings will achieve. Michael returns from prison and solemnly promises Jojo that he is “here to stay,” but neither Michael nor Leonie proves to be a reliable parental figure afterward. Leonie helps her mother cross over into the afterlife and reunite with her dead son, but Jojo becomes enraged that she played an active role in bringing about Mam’s death. Richie finally receives his answer from Pop, but it provides neither solace nor escape from his ghostly limbo. The homecomings granted in the novel, while significant, are incomplete and only partially satisfying at best. They do not relieve the characters of the burdens they have carried with them all their lives. The novel’s concluding image of a tree whose branches are full of ghosts—some from the recent past, others from more distant periods—emphasizes the ongoing and inescapable nature of these burdens.
Reviewers and critics praised the complex and well-developed characters of Sing, Unburied, Sing. Rhianna Walton (2017; see Further Reading) characterized the novel as “both specific and universal, about how the lives we lead are influenced by the natural world and the open wounds of our shared, often brutal, national history.” Erin Little (2017) observed, “the characters, though brilliantly flawed, seem innocent at the same time, even naïve—helpless to their proclivities and histories.” In an interview with Erik Kristman (2018), Ward said about her characters, “I feel a certain sense of responsibility to do a good job as a writer, to write them compellingly, and make them real for the reader so that they will stay with the reader.”
Critics also noted Ward’s effective portrayal of poverty and racial tensions, drawing comparisons to other literary works that focus heavily on specific geographic places. In an interview with Melissa Block (2017), Ward addressed her conflicted feelings about DeLisle, her hometown on which she based the fictional Bois Sauvage, saying “there’s much I dislike about this place. I dislike the fact that I have to bear up under the weight of the history of this place, of the history of slavery and Jim Crow and sharecropping.” In another interview with Sam Briger (2017; see Further Reading), Ward discussed her research of Parchman Farm while writing the novel and her use of it as an example of systemic racism, pointing out how incarcerated men “were re-enslaved.” Ward revealed that the character “Richie is based on … real children who were charged with petty crimes and then sent to be slaves … and to die in Parchman prison.” Wamuwi Mbao (2018) argued that “like the best American novels,” Sing, Unburied, Sing “examines the grotesque mythology at the centre of the nation’s conscience, in order to make sense of the country’s vexed relationship with its history.” Mbao compared the novel to works by Faulkner, Morrison, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Raoul Peck.