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Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Bois Sauvage (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,2251803,377 (4.06)335
"A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. In Jesmyn Ward's first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise. Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature"--… (more)
  1. 30
    Beloved by Toni Morrison (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Mournful spirits haunt both shattering works of African American magical realism that examine the effects of slavery (Beloved) and racism (Unburied) on women and children. Lyrical language and stylistically complex storytelling provide bulwarks from which to glimpse unbearable suffering in each.… (more)
  2. 00
    Of Love and Dust by Ernest J. Gaines (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: These searing novels feature complex, tragic, and flawed characters in the deep South and are set in part in punitive work camps where choices are limited, the threat of violence ubiquitous, and the corridors of fate narrow and unyielding.… (more)
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» See also 335 mentions

English (178)  Spanish (2)  All languages (180)
Showing 1-5 of 178 (next | show all)
Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are being raised by their mother's parents on a small farm in southern Mississippi. Their mother (Leonie) ostensibly lives with them, too, but her drug addiction and selfish ways make her an unreliable presence and a mean one at that. With the bedridden Mam (the grandmother) slowly dying of cancer and Pop (the grandfather) doing his best to teach Jojo how to be a decent grown man, Jojo is torn between acquiescing to his mother's demand that he and Kayla go with her on her road trip to pick up their father, who has just been released from prison, and doing what he really wants, which is to stay home with his grandparents. In the end, he and Kayla, whom Jojo is essentially parenting on his own, go with their mother. The resulting road trip is full of potential dangers, stupid and selfish decisions on Leonie's part, and complicated family dynamics. Along with this main story, we get parallel narratives of Pop's past experiences in the same prison farm that Jojo's dad is in, and the history of Leonie's brother, who was lynched by a group of white boys that included Jojo's father's cousin. There's also an element of the supernatural here, with the ghosts of both Leonie's brother and Pop's friend, who died at the prison farm, making themselves felt by certain inhabitants of the road trip car.

I'm wholly surprised by how much I liked this novel, since normally the genre is too bleak for me. And this one is plenty grim in its own way, but told in a manner that makes the story itself overpower that darkness. Leonie in any other story would have been enough for me to throw the (audio)book across the room and quit - I can't stand bad mothers; they make me so smad - but my need to know how Jojo's and Pop's stories ended kept me intrigued enough to just make a face at Leonie and keep listening. Her complexities help here, too - she's not just a shitty, drug-addicted parent; she's a product of her circumstances as much as of her bad choices. But even more than the story itself, the writing held me entranced. Gorgeous, gorgeous prose, even when it's Leonie's ugly thoughts we're witnessing. I'll certainly be back for more Ward. ( )
  electrascaife | Aug 7, 2022 |
My goodness what a journey this was. For a book with such a simple plot (a woman, her two children and a friend of hers take a road trip to pick up the woman’s husband who has been released from prison), but it packs an incredible emotional punch. Jesmyn Ward does an amazing job of building a tight, absolutely believable central cast of characters with gut wrenchingly convincing drivers and emotions. Around them she interweaves related characters, both living and dead, into a wonderfully rich tapestry.
It’s a gripping and intensely moving book that manages to relay important messages without ever feeling preachy. From the first page to the last it’s simply brilliant. ( )
  whatmeworry | Apr 9, 2022 |
When I finished this book I just started cursing. That's how good it is. I haven't felt this way about non-genre fiction since the first time I read Faulkner, and this is like if Faulkner was a brown woman and wrote about my hometown and my own family. Except better. This book is like a favorite paragraph that just keeps going until you've read an ENTIRE BOOK. This book is good. This book deserves every award it's gotten. ( )
  BrielM | Mar 1, 2022 |
Set in a poor black Mississippi family, we have the truly lovely grandparents (grandma is terminally ill with cancer); the grandkids- 13 yr old Jojo, surroogate parent to his toddler sister....and the kids' mother, lEONIE, with a drug habit and a white boyfriend with deeply racist parents...
In a hellish road trip to collect the boyfriend from jail/ pick up some meth (with kids on board ), the reader is introduced to ghosts too- that of Leonie's brother, shot in a racist attack. And a young boy who - years ago- the grandfather protected while serving time... ( )
  starbox | Feb 8, 2022 |
Haunting. Jesmyn Ward has been described as the heir to Toni Morrison, and she absolutely deserves that title. She relentlessly depicts the effects of poverty, racism, and drugs in the deep South. But while Salvage the Bones shows the strength of family ties, Sing, Unburied, Sing heartbreakingly shows their limitations. This is a devastating story that I will be thinking about for a long time. ( )
  doryfish | Jan 29, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 178 (next | show all)
At just 304 pages long, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a road novel, a ghost story, a family epic, and damning testimony bearing witness to terrible crimes. It is also unforgettable.
 
...Ward is seeking something more from (or perhaps for) her characters. And so the road trip, and the drug drama, and the struggle for wholeness unfold against a series of more mysterious events.... For each of these characters, living or dead, what lies unasked or unspoken becomes an impediment not just to happiness or social mobility but to literal deliverance — and each must decide whether to rise to the occasion, whether to let what he or she harbors sound out. Maybe that’s the miracle here: that ordinary people whose lives have become so easy to classify into categories like rural poor, drug-dependent, products of the criminal justice system, possess the weight and the value of the mythic — and not only after death; that 13-year-olds like Jojo might be worthy of our rapt attention while their lives are just beginning.... Such feats of empathy are difficult, all too often impossible to muster in real life. But they feel genuinely inevitable when offered by a writer of such lyric imagination as Ward. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times Book Reviews, Tracy K. Smith (pay site) (Sep 22, 2017)
 
This is a lyrical howl of a book that knows exactly when to go quiet and when to make its cries almost unbearable. It's a story of unfinished business, for both a country still struggling to live up to its ideals and for the ghosts that walk through these pages ... The past is its own character in Sing, Unburied, Sing, ready to burst in without a moment's notice and remind everyone it never really went away. If William Faulkner mined the South for gothic, stream-of-consciousness tragedy, and Toni Morrison conjured magical realism from the corroding power of the region's race hatred, then Ward is a worthy heir to both. This is not praise to be taken lightly. Ward has the command of language and the sense of place, the empathy and the imagination, to carve out her own place among the literary giants.
added by Lemeritus | editThe Dallas Morning News, Chris Vognar (Sep 8, 2017)
 
The title Sing, Unburied, Sing seems to echo the opening of the Iliad, when Homer asks the muse to sing of unburied bodies left on the battlefield of Troy "a feast for dogs and birds," while the dead men's souls descend to Hades. Homer's poems were meant to act as immortal grave markers for the war dead, even as the physical graves and bodies would rot away. We're still singing for those Greek corpses; why not, Jesmyn Ward asks, sing for the generations of black Southerners undone by racism and history, lynched, raped, enslaved, shot, and imprisoned? In this lush and lonely novel, Ward lets the dead sing. It's a kind of burial.
 
However eternal its concerns, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America....With the supernatural cast to the story, everything feels heightened. The clearest influence is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — the child returning from the dead, bitter and wronged and full of questions. The echoes in the language feel like deliberate homage.... The ghosts — most of them, at any rate — want to rest, but they need restitution first. They need to know what happened to them, and why. It’s the unfinished business of a nation, playing out today in the calls for the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and in the resurgence of the Klan.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Parul Sehgal (pay site) (Sep 5, 2017)
 

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ward, Jesmynprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chalk, Chrissecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miceli, JayaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sundström, JoakimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wesley, Rutinasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
Who are we looking for, who are we looking for?
It's Equiano we're looking for.
Has he gone to the stream? Let him come back.
Has he gone to the farm? Let him return.
It's Equiano we're looking for.

----Kwa chant about the disappearance of Equiano an African boy
The memory is a living thing---it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives---the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

---from One Writer's Beginnings,
by Eudora Welty
The Gulf shines dull as lead. The coast of Texas
glints like a metal rim. I have no home
as long as summer bubbling to its head

boils for that day when in the Lord God's name
the coals of fire are heaped upon the head
of all whose gospel is the whip and flame,

age after age, the uninstructing dead.

--from "The Gulf," by Derek Walcott
Dedication
For my mother, Norine Elizabeth Dedeaux, who loved me before I took my first breath. Every second of my life, she shows me so.
First words
I like to think I know what death is.
Quotations
This the kind of world, Mama told me when I got my period when I was twelve, that makes fools of the living and saints of them once they dead. And devils them throughout.
How the dolphins were dying off, how whole pods of them washed up on the beaches in Florida, in Louisiana, in Alabama and Mississippi: oil-burnt, sick with lesions, hollowed out from the insides. And then Michael said something I’ll never forget: Some scientists for BP said this didn’t have nothing to do with the oil, that sometimes this is what happens to animals: they die for unexpected reasons. Sometimes a lot of them. Sometimes all at once. And then Michael looked at me and said: And when that scientist said that, I thought about humans. Because humans is animals.
He’s been orbiting her like a moon, sleeping on the sofa with his back to the door, searching the yard and woods for pens and bins and machines to fix so he can repair in the face of what he cannot.
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"A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. In Jesmyn Ward's first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise. Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature"--

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Haiku summary
JoJo is tender,
Straight-backed as murdering Pop;
Kayla, too, sees ghosts.

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