Sing, Unburied, Sing
The United States has been blessed with many outstanding writers from the South, particularly writers from the State of Mississippi. Among the most recent of these writers is Jesmyn Ward (b. 1977), the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant together with National Book Awards in 2011 and 2017. I enjoyed Ward's 2011 National Book Award winner "Salvage the Bones" and I enjoyed this 2017 book, "Sing, Unburied, Sing" even more. It is a beautifully written, poetic novel with many characters and multiple layers of meaning from the gritty and realistic to the metaphysical. Without minimizing the disappointments of life and the long effect of slavery and racial discrimination in Mississippi, the novel shows great understanding of people and a sense of hope. It celebrates song, time, and place.
The novel is set in rural Mississippi on the Gulf and on a lengthy ride north to Mississippi's notorious Parchman Prison. The story involves a poor inter-racial family spanning three generations and is told in the first person by three alternating characters. The first,Jojo, 13, is the son of Leonie, an African American woman and Michael, her long term boyfriend, white with racist parents. The second narrator is Leonie, 29. She and Michael have had two children, Jojo and Kayla, 3. Both Leonie and Michael are heavy drug users, and Michael has spent the three years before the novel begins at Parchman Prison for manufacturing and selling. Leonie loves but pays little attention to her children, with the burden of raising Kayla falling on Jojo. Leonie's parents are Pop, who served time at Parchman when young, and Mom, dying of cancer and a healer who is able to communicate with the dead.
The third narrator is a ghost, Richie, who served time at Parchman with Pop and who begins haunting Jojo as he accompanies Leonie and her white friend, Misty, to Parchman to bring Michael home from prison. Ghosts and spirits and the dead play a large role in the novel. In addition to Richie, the ghost of Leonie's beloved older brother, Given, who had been murdered 15 years earlier, appears to play a prominent role in the book. Spirits and ghosts appear in this novel when their lives have been troubled and have come to bad and premature ends. They wander and haunt others in search of closure and peace.
The novel begins with a heavily gritty scene with Pop and Jojo slaughtering a goat to cook for Jojo's 13th birthday. Ward has a sharp eye for the details of rural Mississippi life. Much of the story involves the brutality of Parchman Prison, described in part through Michael's experiences but much more fully through the earlier experience of Pop. When he was committed to Parchman at 15 Pop, (whose name is River) befriended the 12-year old inmate Richie and tried to comfort him after a terrible whipping. Richie's ghost comes to Jojo because it wants to learn the fate that cost him his life and to be able to sing a song of peace and to rest. In addition to the terrors of Parchman, the history of racial relations in Mississippi plays a large role in part through Michael's father, big Joseph, an unrepentant and virulent racist. And the book has many graphic scenes of lynchings, burnings, and police with an itchy trigger finger. Drug use plays a large role in the book as well through Michael, Misty, Leonie, and several other characters. The religious, metaphysical aspects of the novel come to the forefront in Richie's story, and in Richie's poetic speech and in the story of the dying Mam, with her clairvoyance and with the haunting by Given.
In part, this novel is a coming of age story for Jojo and a road novel, with the lengthy treatment of the drive to Parchman and back, but it is much more. The book is rooted in place and in place and character. Ward loves the places she describes and the people, with all their difficulties. She develops the brutal aspects of her story, in terms of the racism from Mississippi's past in a way that comes out from her characters and their lives. The " ghosts" from the racist past and present come through without destroying the people, and the search for hope and a better life. A spirit of love, forgiveness and mystical religion underlie this book more than a sense of condemnation.
Many parts of this story suggest the spiritual aspects of life, intertwined with some dreadfulness, particularly in the voice of Richie. The ghost observes, when he comes to haunt Jojo, of the difficulty of understanding the nature of time and evil particularly growing out of Richie's experience when alive at Parchman.
"I didn't understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?"
Then again, late in the novel Richie's ghost speaks of returning to his spiritual home at peace with himself at last and aware of the physical beauty and variety of the world and its people:
"There are yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas. Some of the homes are clustered together in small villages, graceful gatherings of round, steady huts with doomed roofs. And there are cities, cities that harbor plazas and canals and buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky. Yet they do not."
Ward's story begins with roots in a particular place. expands to uncover the place's ghosts and tragic events, and expands still further and transcendentally to a vision of hope. The book encourages careful reading and extensive reflection. "Sing, Unburied, Sing" is an extraordinary novel.