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Sing, Unburied, Sing

August 25, 2020

IMG_4156For a couple of days and nights last week I felt deeply sad, not for any particular reason but maybe just because the time for feeling all the sadness over the state of the world caught up with me. I floundered around finding the right book to read because that’s how I deal with sadness; I find some fiction to immerse myself in and escape. Finally I settled on Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which worked pretty well as it suited my mood while distracting me from wallowing to excess in my own particular slough of despair.

The way the chapters alternate narrators is effective, especially since the novel begins with Jojo’s point of view, a boy on his thirteenth birthday, living with his maternal grandparents and taking care of his little sister Kayla. We see how loving Jojo’s grandfather is towards the boy and how indifferent his mother Leonie is to both him and his sister. We find out that Jojo’s father Michael is a white man, and he is in Parchman, a Mississippi prison. And we see that Jojo’s grandmother is dying of cancer.

When we get Leonie’s point of view, we understand that one of her problems is that she hasn’t gotten over the death of her brother Given who died when he was a senior in high school. He was a boy who thought that his football “teammates, White and Black, were like brothers to him” and found out they didn’t feel the same way when he bested a white boy he’d made a bet with. His murder was covered up as a “hunting accident.”

The main action of the novel is a car trip when Leonie insists on taking both children to pick up their father when he gets out of Parchman. It’s an all-day trip, and Leonie’s friend Misty goes with them, a woman Leonie describes as her “best friend” at the same time she knows that “when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her.” Two adult women, one black, one white, and two mixed-race children, one thirteen and one three, are in the car. The women mostly ignore the children, seeming to forget that they need to eat and drink, and readers see that Leonie’s picture of a family is more real to her than the needs of her children.

Because Jojo got his turn to speak first, the reader is on his side and has little sympathy for Leonie, who he used to call mama “before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting little crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee.” Every once in a while, though, when Leonie is thinking about something from the past, I had a fleeting bit of sympathy for her point of view, like when she looks at her mother and thought about “the Medusa I’d seen in an old movie when I was younger, monstrous and green-scaled, and I thought: “That’s not it at all. She was beautiful as Mama. That’s how she froze those men, with the shock of seeing something so perfect and fierce in the world.”

On the way home from Parchman there are five people in the car and one ghost, who edges in to the alternating chapters and gets one from his own point of view; his name is Richie and he knew Jojo’s grandfather years ago.

Richie’s story is finally told, and the story of Jojo’s grandmother’s life comes to an end. When Jojo asks her if she will be a ghost, she tells him “can’t say for sure. But I don’t think so. I think that only happens when the dying’s bad. Violent. The old folks always told me that when someone dies in a bad way, sometimes it’s so awful even God can’t bear to watch, and then half your spirit stays behind and wanders, wanting peace the way a thirsty man weeks water….That ain’t my way.”

The unwinding of the threads that tangle the live characters together reveals their beginnings, which is with the ghosts. Jojo and Kayla can see the ghosts, and knowing more about their stories helps the two children understand their place in the world.

It’s a sad novel, but sometimes you have to stop and feel the sadness in order to be able to go on with your life.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2020 7:36 am

    “[S]ometimes you have to stop and feel the sadness in order to be able to go on with your life.“


    Thank you for that and for reminding of yet another great book that’s already on my shelves.

    • August 26, 2020 5:30 pm

      It’s a good one to pick up when you think you can bear it. It is powerful.

  2. August 25, 2020 7:47 am

    Aw hon, I’m glad you found a book that was what you needed, but so sorry that you’ve been feeling so wretched. I hope something comes along to lighten your spirits a little bit this week. (I had yesterday off, which was notably helpful.)

    • August 26, 2020 5:29 pm

      Yeah, it’s kind of stupid to feel sad when others have sadder or scarier things happening, like a hurricane bearing down on you, but sometimes a person just has to feel what she feels for a while.

  3. August 27, 2020 3:00 pm

    I think I know what you mean – sometimes reading about a different kind of sadness lets you escape your own particular sadness for a while. I’ve been meaning to read this one. I thought Men We Reaped was excellent, as well as the anthology she edited, The Fire This Time.

    • August 29, 2020 9:26 am

      Escape can be good–I think it’s as important not to wallow for too long as it is to take the time to feel the sadness.
      As good as I’m hearing that other things by this author are, I think I’m going to have to give her a rest for a while. Her writing is too powerful for everyday.

  4. magpiemusing permalink
    August 30, 2020 5:54 pm

    it’s a really powerful book. mostly sad – but there are glimmers of hopefulness. the relationships between the boy and his grandparents, and between the boy and his sister, are lovely examples of parenting around an absent parent. but oof. so much of it is so hard. the writing is amazing.

    • August 30, 2020 5:57 pm

      Yes. I liked the part when Richie commented on how the boy and his sister could sleep without fear of being hurt and how they weren’t starving, despite the fact that we see they get no food or water from their mom. Richie’s story is much like Jean Valjean’s except worse.

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