Book Reviews

Jesmyn Ward

Scribner

I cough into the blanket, partly from the smell of Mam dying, partly from knowing that she dying; it catches in the back of my throat and I know it’s a sob, but my face is in the sheets and nobody can see me cry…

“She [Leonie] hates me,” I say.

“No, she love you. She don’t know how to show it. And her love for herself and her love for Michael—well, it gets in the way. It confuse her.”

I wipe my eyes on the sheets by shaking my head and look up…

Mam’s looking at me straight on...“You ain’t never going to have that problem.”

                     from Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

  

Poke around in a family closet long enough, and you’ll probably find any number of skeletons—those embarrassing secrets that never made it into the annual holiday letter: grandfather’s shady business dealings, the cousin who died under questionable circumstances, the aunt who ran off with a [FILL IN YOUR PREJUDICE]. Nose around long enough, and you’ll probably also find a ghost or two in that closet.

In Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 National Book Award winning novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, thirteen-year old JoJo encounters ghosts and skeletons as he joins his mother Leonie and three-year old sister Kayla on a road trip to the Mississippi State penitentiary at Parchman. They’re going to meet his father Michael who is being released.

JoJo is named after his White grandfather Big Joseph, who refuses to acknowledge the boy, but it is JoJo’s Black grandfather River, called “Pop,” who he loves, respects and emulates.

On the road trip, they’ll pick up a hitchhiker, the ghost of a young boy who knew River while they were both incarcerated decades earlier at Parchman. (As in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, ghosts are taken for granted, just part of the landscape. No big deal.)

Leonie is haunted by her own ghost, that of her older brother Given, proud, handsome, confident, who was killed in a “hunting accident,” according to Big Joseph. Leonie sees Given’s ghost when she’s high—which is every chance she gets.

The road trip, and the story of their family, is narrated by JoJo, Leonie and the ghost of the boy Richie. Along the way, painful truths are revealed—As in most families, “painful truths” seems a redundant phrase. The book reviewer in the Washington Post called Sing, Unburied, Sing, “one of the saddest ghost stories I’ve ever read.”

As she did in Salvage the Bones, her novel that won the National Book Award in 2011, Ward finds a poetic quality in the lyrical everyday talk of Mississippi folk: “Richie, he was called. Real name was Richard, and he wasn’t nothing but twelve years old. He was in for three years for stealing food: salted meat. Lot of folks was in there for stealing food…”

After pawing around in the family closet, one realizes that, along with skeletons and ghosts, the closet also holds a whole lot of pain and guilt and sorrow that has been stored there, hidden but not forgotten; it’s what feeds the ghosts.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.