Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is the winner of the 2017 National Book Award, and is a complex story of one family’s struggles with the stifling constraints of poverty, race, and the wounds of generations past.
In this stunning novel, the reader will get to hear the voices of JoJo, a 13 year old biracial boy being raised by his noble and patient grandfather, Pop, and his dying grandmother Mam. His mother, Leonie, flits in and out of his life as she struggles with addiction and succumbs to her own selfish nature. His father, Michael, is in prison. His toddler sister, Kayla, whom he loves and adores is his shared responsibility but he loves her and loves taking care of her.
On JoJo’s 13th birthday, Leonie gets a call from Michael saying that he is to be released from prison. Determined to pick him and take their two kids with her, Leonie sets off on a journey across the state, to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve him.
Pop, whose given name is River, also served time at Parchman in his youth. Back then, Parchman was a different place. A place where men were expected to complete back-breaking labor from sunrise to sunset. A place that didn’t particularly care if you were guilty or innocent, or if you were young or old. Pop tells JoJo of his time at Parchman in small spurts, all that he can manage to pass on at one time. He talks about a 13-year old boy that he knew all those years ago, one named Ritchie, who wasn’t tough enough to survive the brutal reality of life at Parchman.
The reader also gets to hear the voice of Leonie. Leonie, who has always been haunted, both figuratively and literally by her brother Given, who was shot and killed as a teenager. Leonie whose life seemingly lost direction after Given’s death and how she found purpose again in Michael. We see her less-than-generous thought about her two children, and her resentment over being a dealt a hand in life that was less than winning.
And lastly we hear from the ghost Ritchie. We see his anguish, the memories of his time at Parchman, and we get to see as the Earth beckons him and he answers. The winding journey of his death, until he is able to attach himself to JoJo and get back to River, who can tell him what happened. The ending of his own story, that has escaped him and that he needs to hear before he can move on.
Not unlike Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward’s prose is lyrical, mystical, and reads like a story that has been passed down from generation to generation. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a beautiful, provocative and profound work, it’s easy to see why it was chosen for the National Book Award.
If you liked Sing, Unburied, Sing, then try Home or Beloved by Toni Morrison, or The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.