Jesmyn Ward’s powerful third novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is a harrowing look at life at the rock bottom of the American dream, permeated with poverty, racism, addiction and incarceration. In interviews Ward has said that she used William Faulkners’ 1930 novel As I Lay Dying as a template, hoping to explore the dark side of life in modern Mississippi as Faulkner had for an earlier Mississippi generation.
The main character, and one of the three narrators of Sing, Unburied, Sing (Faulkner used a bulkier 15 narrators) is Jojo, a 13 year-old mixed race boy being raised by his elderly Black grandparents – Mam, who is dying from cancer, and Pop, a dignified but haunted man eking out a living on a small farm on Mississipi’s Gulf Coast.
The household is rounded out by Jojo’s three-year-old sister, Kayla, who Jojo parents by default, and his meth-addicted mother, Leonie.
Jojo and Kayla’s father, Michael, who is white, has been in prison for the past three years in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, where Pop also did time in 1948. When the phone call comes that Michael is about to be released it interrupts Jojo’s addled birthday party that Leonie is too selfish and too spaced out to organize with any semblance of affection.
This precipitates the road trip to pick up Michael from Parchman that takes up the claustrophobic middle section of the book. Leonie, Jojo, Kayla and Leonie’s addict friend Misty, whose boyfriend is also an inmate at Parchman, head north to the prison, stopping along the way to transport a bag of crystal meth to Michael’s unscrupulous lawyer as payment for his services.
Things go horribly wrong on the trip to and from Parchman as Leonie’s neglect causes Kayla to become desperately ill and Jojo’s life to be imperiled by a highway cop in a tense situation where Leonie swallows the remaining meth and nearly overdoses.
There is an element of magic realism that is introduced early on in the novel but becomes fully developed about a third of the way in. Jojo and Leonie share the narrative at first and it is revealed that a strain of mystical visions runs in Mam’s family. Jojo can hear animals’ voices speaking to him and when she is high Leonie has visions of her dead brother Given, who was murdered by Michael’s cousin.
After they pick up Michael from Parchman Prison a third narrator appears, Richie, a ghost who hitchhikes back with them. Only Jojo and Kayla can see Richie, who was in Parchman with Pop and died there when he was Jojo’s age. His spirit needs Pop’s help to “cross the river” and “go home.”
The themes of ghosts not laid to rest and songs heard but not understood flow through the novel, echoing America’s uneasy relationship with the fact of its racism, past and present.
This is an angry book and sometimes it is painful to read, especially in its descriptions of the violence and lynchings Pop and Richie encountered in the Jim Crow era South. Ward doesn’t offer any hopeful solutions, but she does present Jojo as a dignified, ethical role model in touch with the pain of the past and with the potential to inhabit a better future.