It’s now April, and I’ve read many good books since January, but Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing still stands out as one of the best this year. The story is filled with authentic, complicated people, some of whom are dead. There are ghosts here, plenty of them, but I won’t say the book “has an element of the supernatural,” because that implies a divide between the ghost and the “natural” world. They are clearly part of the world. They may be scary, but their needs and motivations are sharp and clear. They are as real as the gun a white cop points at the head of a Black thirteen-year-old boy.
Ward uses shifting points of view, including those of ghosts, to tell her story. The plot is basically a road trip, as just-turned-thirteen-year-old JoJo and his three-year-old sister Kayla set off with their neglectful mother Leonie to pick up their father Michael. Michael, a white meth-cooker, is being released from prison.
Leonie is incapable of providing the basic necessities for her children, or of showing them love, though JoJo and Kayla are well taken care of by Leonie’s parents. That robust safety net has begun to fray, though, as JoJo’s grandmother deals with cancer.
Like his grandmother, JoJo has abilities. He can understand animals and speak with ghosts. As the story progresses we see that Kayla has these abilities too. It gives them information they both need, but it makes them vulnerable. Leonie may have had this same talent but has shut the door on it. While she thirsts for her children’s love, (she resents it when her “baby girl” turns toward JoJo for comfort and not her) none of her love can flow anywhere but towards Michael.
Ward’s prose is lyrical without ever being flowery, and the story is grounded, gritty and real. The measure of her skill and hard work, as a writer, shows best in the character of Leonie. From early in the book all of my judgments kicked in as I watched this neglectful woman. She sets off on a two-day road trip with no food for her children; when Kayla gets sick on the road, Leonie’s attempt to use herbs to heal her goes wrong because Leonie can’t remember which leaves to use in the tisane she brews. At one point she muses, without actually saying it, that both JoJo and Kayla are too dark, and maybe a third child with Michael “would be perfect.”
Along the way, though, we learn that Leonie’s brother Given was murdered by an envious white boy and the town covered it up, calling it a hunting accident. We see that her love for Michael is both real and reciprocated. By the end of the book I not only understood Leonie, I had some sympathy, not just pity, for her and her choices. We also learn that part of what drew her to Michael was that he was the only person who would tell her the truth about Given.
Pop, JoJo’s grandfather, is the tower of strength throughout the book, but a ghost JoJo meets at the prison opens a window on a dark incident in Pop’s past. These characters are not symbols, they are people, with both good and bad in their pasts, who make choices that aren’t always good… or, at least, are the least-worst in a bad situation. And in the end, they muddle through. JoJo and Kayla are not abandoned even though their lives are hard. They are loved and they know it.
I’ve really only talked about one element of the book. The aspect of the ghosts, and the theme that injustice might breed ghosts, would fill another column. I recommend this book. I especially recommend it for people who did not grow up Black in the rural US south. We need this context. We need this book.