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Book Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

Hayden Stokley, Student Life Editor

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There are a few eternally relatable experiences that nearly everyone can understand: the tethers of family, the turmoil of love, and–for those of us who call the intricate state of Mississippi home–the eternal heat of a Southern summer.

These components inspire the story of “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and such relatability and beautifully detailed circumstances contribute to the allure and universality that can only be executed by an expert on the human condition.

What better expert than a young African-American woman born and raised on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, whose own life experiences shaped her perspective of the fragility of life and the diverse, distinctive voices it entails? Now an established author and professor at Tulane University, Jesmyn Ward tells stories of life in the South that are authentic and powerful–revealing insight into the world of the impoverished, ignored and forgotten people who reside in the chaotic and hidden realms of society. She gives precise and biting commentary to the world she observes with poignant, elaborate prose, but she also creates a beautiful world where the heart of love and hope still remain.

Young Jojo, a thirteen year old boy raised in the fictional coastal town of Bois Savage, was forced to understand the complexities of pain and the unique challenges a family can face from a young age.

As one of the main narrators of “Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jojo reveals the perspective of a young boy who has seen death, misfortune and poverty. He offers  haunting commentary on the struggles he and his family face, revealed through the eyes of a child who has grown up too quickly.

Ward not only tells the stories of the forgotten and silenced, she uplifts them. She sings their tales. It is those narratives–of the drug addicts, the broken families and sick and elderly–that are given the central role in the novel, and that is the beauty of its premise. Through the stories of these troubled individuals, Ward insinuates that perhaps we have more in common with the people we often forget and ignore than we care to realize.

In the summer that the novel takes place, entrenched in the struggles of the sticky humidity and the soaring temperature it accompanies, Jojo’s mother, Leonie, takes her two children along with her friend on a road trip across the state.

Leonie, who also narrates segments of the novel, is a drug-addict, but her greatest addiction is the love of her life. This man, Michael, is the father of Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla. Michael is locked up in the state penitentiary, Parchman Farm, but the modern penitentiary hosts a much deeper history of pain and horror that Jojo and his family cannot escape. Leonie’s love for Michael is complex, divided by their differing race and the unrest that has always accompanied such dividing lines.

Jojo and Kayla are mostly raised by their grandparents, Mam and Pop, but Mam undergoes chemotherapy throughout the novel, and her life is hanging on its last leg, breaths away from death at any moment. With Pop tending to the house chores for the family and Leonie estranged, Jojo raises his young sister, rapidly maturing and coming to terms with reality.

Although the novel is submerged in the troubling reality that drenches Mississippi in a shadow of grief and shame, it also hints at supernatural elements that permeate the novel. These spiritual cameos offer a deeper subtext to the family’s history, but the stories unveiled mirror the deeper turbulence of the entire state.

It glimmers with an ethereal quality, such as in scenes when Leonie is high and she sees her dead brother, Given, who was wrongfully murdered in a “hunting accident,” or when Jojo meets Richie, a young boy who was locked in the penitentiary with Pap ages ago.

Sing, Unburied, Sing” is not just a novel about a road trip. It’s a novel about family: imperfect family, with complexities and chaos. It tells the story of hope and renewal amidst the deep trenches of pain, poverty and racial tension. Most importantly, it tells the story of the people who are often ignored, whose voices remain silenced and unheard. The addicts. The mothers who abandon their children. The convicts and murderers. The children affected by it all.

This is no simple novel; in fact, it is, in ways, an epic–a story that delineates, with grandeur and audacity, the most authentic aspects of Mississippi.

That’s why I will wholeheartedly recommend “Sing, Unburied, Sing” to anyone who loves a good story about normal people in abnormal circumstances. You will contemplate the human condition. You will fall in love with some of the most unlovable characters. You will find hope in the darkest places.

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