Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award-winning Jesmyn Ward has done it again with Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book about 13-year-old Jojo and his family, both living and dead, in Mississippi. Ward's writing is masterful, and captures the South, its spirit and its history with such depth and such grip. Hers is a rare talent, which sings to be read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing primarily follows Jojo, his mother Leonie and the ghost of a young boy named Richie. Jojo and Leonie live with their Mam and Pop, who are the usual caretakers to Jojo and his baby sister Kayla. Leonie finds herself preoccupied, caught up in her love for Michael, the children's father, and in her addiction. Jojo admires his Pop, River, like the father figure he is, learning about what it is to be a man through the way Pop works the earth and cares for his family and the animals on his farm. Well before ghosts enter the picture, there are already the voices of the animals, who Jojo hears with regularity.

When Leonie learns that Michael will be released from Parchman, in northern Mississippi, she drives the children and her friend, Misty, whose partner is also at the prison, to pick him up. Kayla keeps throwing up and it falls to Jojo, not Leonie, to care for her. Leonie spends her time anxiously awaiting Michael's release, and then anxiously doting on him. Her minimal attention toward Kayla exists more in her fantasy than in reality, leaning on broken teachings of her mother, a traditional healer of sorts, to treat her daughter's tummy ache. 

Because I wanted Michael’s mouth on me, because from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.
— Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

On the road, we also return to earlier memories. Jojo recalls the stories of his Pop's time in Parchman, when he trained the dogs to hunt and kept an eye out for a young prisoner, Richie. Leonie remembers her brother, Given, who was shot by Michael's cousin and whose killing was covered up by Michael's father, the town sheriff. Richie becomes tethered to Jojo once they reach Parchman and Given, always tethered to his sister.

What transpires is the uncovering of the full story of Richie and River, and a finish to Given's story. Ward tackles so many things in this narrative, from fatherhood, to race and racism, to the loss of innocence, through the eyes of characters who can see beyond life and death, who can hear the whisperings of injustice and the murmuring of animals - who can hear the songs of the unburied.

There’s so many,’ Richie says. His voice is molasses slow. ‘So many of us,’ he says. ‘Hitting. The wrong keys. Wandering against. The song.
— Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing