Ghosts Exist! & Why Sing, Unburied, Sing is A Triumph.
When I first picked up Sing, unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, I turned it over in my hands and tried to figure out what it could possibly be about. Instinctively, I did exactly what my third grade English teacher said to do — looked at the cover, read the back, and then read a random page in the middle. I still wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into — it didn’t seem like something I would normally choose for myself. Yet, just by reading the first line of the book, I understood that the critical acclaim was well deserved. Ward has the ability to take a plot that might not usually capture a reader and turn it into a journey about family and coming of age with her distinct use of language and rich dialogue. Sing, unburied, Sing is a triumph because of Ward’s understanding of the small details in life on the bigger picture and the hidden impacts of intergenerational trauma.
Sing, unburied, Sing tells the story of a biracial family in Mississippi with a complicated, interwoven family history. Ward tells the story through the perspectives of different characters — Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — throughout the novel as the ghosts of the past become very much real life. On the one side of the family, the mother, Leonie, is struggling with her own drug addiction and wanting to be a good mother to her children. She is black, and her parents are the primary guardians of her two children, Jojo and Kayla — although her mother is dying of cancer throughout the novel. Jojo, Leonie’s thirteen year old son, wants to emulate his grandfather, Pop, and looks to him as an example of what a man should be. He is learning about his own identity while also trying to protect his toddler sister. Their father, Michael, who is white, has been in jail a couple of states away in Parchman, a jail that Pop was once imprisoned in himself. Michael’s parents reject his marriage to Leonie and refuse to even meet their children. His family is also responsible for the death of Leonie’s brother, Given, who was killed in cold blood during a faked hunting accident when Leonie and Michael were teenagers. Now, Leonie is haunted by the Given’s ghost, who only appears to her when she’s high. All of these relationships come into collision when Michael is released from prison, and Leonie packs Jojo, Kayla, and family friend and fellow drug addict Misty in the car to pick him up. On the way to the jail, the divide between Leonie and her children becomes more and more obvious when Kayla becomes ill and refuses to acknowledge Leonie as her mother, instead preferring her to find comfort in her older brother. At the same time, Jojo spends the long car ride thinking about his grandfather’s stories about Parchman Prison — specifically about his Pop’s friend, Richie, whose tragic story Pop has never completed. Once at the prison, another ghost from the past is brought into the story when Pop’s old friend, who died at Parchman, comes to visit Jojo in the car and tags along for the ride back home. Once back at home, the ghosts of the past and present reconcile themselves in the end as the grandmother passes away and Jojo transitions into adulthood.
Ward showcases a detailed and intimate understanding of language through her striking dialogue throughout the novel, using something as simple as names to spotlight the family’s issues with each other. On page 43, Leonie explains Jojo, her own son, calls her by her first name instead of calling her Mama. “Now he never calls me by anything but my name, and every time he says it, it sounds like a slap” (Ward 43). This thread carries through the rest of the chapter, as Ward breaks down the small cracks in the family’s relationships that translate to something much bigger. Pop also calls Leonie by her first name (Ward 42), and Leonie fondly remembers a time when he instead lovingly called her “girl.” This division between Leonie and the rest of the family becomes even more obvious when the reader realizes that Pop still calls Jojo “boy.” Ward is effective at showing the little ways in which relationships crack that lead to larger issues.
Sing, unburied, Sing is also very focused on intergenerational trauma in families, and how the past effects the present in everything a person does — how stories passed down through generations and beliefs form our identity, which includes our parent’s mistakes. This intergenerational trauma is personified in the form of literal ghosts — people that the characters in the story have carried with them for long after their tragic deaths. On page 51, Leonie says, “Three years ago, I did a line and saw Given for the first time” (Ward 51). The sentence in itself is striking and memorable, but the longer Given is around the more his presence feels like an unfriendly lingering. Leonie feels guilty and tormented by the way that’s she’s acted toward her family; marrying a family member of the people who murdered her brother and negelecting her children. This is at a stark contrast to the way ghosts present themselves to Jojo —
the ghost of Richie seems to want to help him, despite being there for his own self benefit. This represents Jojo’s innocence. While Jojo can see the ghosts of the past through the trauma of his family members, he’s not responsible for why they’re there. This personification intergeneration trauma also takes place when Pop finally tells Jojo about what really happened to Richie and how guilty he’s always felt about his death. “I washed my hands every day, Jojo.” Pop says, “But that damn blood ain’t never come out” (Ward 256). This is another wonderful line from Ward that clearly spotlights the lasting impression that horrible events have on people for the rest of their lives. By telling Jojo these stories, Pop is passing the events onto him, along with some of the pain. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it contributes to Jojo’s forming identity about himself and helps transition him from a child with innocence to someone with a more adult realization of the world around him.
Finally, Sing is most certainly a coming of age story focused around Jojo. His development into an adult and the shedding of childhood innocence is a well-established theme carried throughout the novel. The very first line of the novel establishes this well: “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight” (Ward 1). Jojo continues to say that he doesn’t want Pop to “read my (his) slowness as fear, as weakness, as me not being old enough to look at death like a man should” (Ward 5). As a boy that’s recently turned thirteen, he’s looking to Pop to show him what it means to be a man and wants to prove himself. When he’s put in the car with his toddler sister, he then becomes the only man in the car and sees it as his job to protect Kayla. Yet, even though he does a good job at this, Richie points out on page 185 that Jojo is still young. “I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the unmarked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sisters. He looks even younger when he falls asleep” (Ward 185). Ward then uses Richie’s character to identify the mental differences in what realizations people have that perhaps transition them into adulthood, like time, love, and the changing definition of home. By the end of the novel, the death of Jojo’s grandmother is used to make the final transition. Leonie picks up on this on page 271 saying, “Only Jojo’s eyes peer out, carrying some of the boy in them” (Ward 271). She realizes quickly that Jojo is no longer ignorant of her ways and intentions. “I’m a book and he can read every world. I know this. He sees me. He knows it all” (Ward 271). From that point on, Leonie and Michael make the choice to remove themselves from the picture of their children’s lives as much as they can, and Jojo comes to terms with his biological mother’s actions. While at the beginning of the novel he states that he doesn’t understand her, by the end he says that he does — which seems to mark him coming full circle (Ward 279).
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Sing, unburied, Sing. Ward takes a plot line that might not normally be very appealing and turns it into something deep and relatable. A simple family car ride becomes a story about trauma and complicated family relationships. If nothing else, readers should pick up this novel because of the beautiful language and purposeful messaging. The larger plot line is present and important, but the power of Ward’s writing is in her details and subtle messaging about life. No matter who you are, you’ll take something valuable away from this novel.