Jesmyn Ward peoples her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing with vivid, unforgettable characters who drive the narrative. Chief among them is Leonie, a drug-addicted, dysfunctional, and abusive African-American mother. Jojo, her thirteen-year-old son, fathered by Leonie’s white boyfriend, is forced into early adulthood. He focuses on protecting his toddler sister, Kayla, from their abusive mother. Michael, the absent white father, has just been released from the state penitentiary. Jojo has two sets of grandparents—his black grandparents, Pop who showers Jojo with unconditional love, and Mam who is dying of cancer; and his white grandparents, the racist Big Joseph who refuses to acknowledge the existence of his bi-racial grandchildren, and his wife who struggles to accept them.
The story alternates between the first-person point of view of Jojo and Leonie. Added to the mix is the occasional point of view of Richie, a deceased African-American child who served time in the state penitentiary with Jojo’s grandfather and was killed while trying to escape. To add to an already complicated picture, we have the intermittent presence of another ghost: Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her murdered brother, Given. Jojo is haunted by the ghost of Richie who insists on learning why Pop abandoned him at the state penitentiary.
Most of the narrative unfolds during an intense road trip in which Leonie and her friend go to pick up Michael from the state penitentiary. Leonie insists on taking her children along. The tension builds up as the young Kayla becomes sick and experiences several bouts of vomiting in the car. Jojo continues his role of parent. He soothes her, cleans up her vomit, and shelters her from the frustrations and abuse of their drug-addled mother. The car ride is described in vivid detail. The palpable tension is infused with the stench of vomit mingling with the sweltering heat as Leonie drives and Jojo observes.
The novel explores the theme of borderlines. The intermittent presence of ghosts Richie and Given dissolve the border between the living and the dead. The main characters are located on the borders of society and make difficult choices to survive. Jojo, as a child of mixed-heritage, struggles to come to terms with his identity, with his abusive mother and absent father. Leonie struggles to be a good mother but fails miserably. Rather than rectify her inability to parent, she is consumed with self-loathing, resorting to drugs and abusive behaviors toward her children, especially Jojo. Michael’s attempt to gain his parents acceptance for his children is rebuffed. This catapults him back into drug abuse. Pop is haunted by the memory of his role in Richie’s death.
This is not an easy, light-hearted novel. Set in a Mississippi that is plagued with institutional racism, bigotry, and violence, Ward cuts a deep and penetrating swathe into the lives of characters struggling to survive systemic oppression. The haunting subject matter; the expressive and, at times, lyrical diction; the immersive setting; the vividly portrayed, memorable characters; and the unflinchingly honest vision contribute to make this a very powerful and compelling novel.