Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

February 21, 2018
Sing Unburied Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Book Review, InToriLex
Published By: Scribner on September 5, 2017
Format Read: Hard Cover Edition (285 pages)
Genre: Adult/ Magical Realism / African American Fiction
Series: Stand alone
Source: Purchased
Sing, Unburied, Sing
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author. 



This is a book I cannot get out my head. It follows Jojo a young boy coping with parents who can hardly take care of themselves. Jojo's grandfather steps in to parent him and his younger sister the best way he ca. Although he grapples with his own trauma. The characters in this book jump off the page. The intensity and honesty used to describe this family was overwhelming. I had to step away from reading and get my life in order to pick it up again. This book describes drug use, child neglect, cancer and a stifling prison. It's all ugly but describes the realities many black families have had to cope with over time.
"Some days later, I understood what he was trying to say, that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up."
The lyrical prose sets a surreal atmosphere so the reader feels like a reluctant observer that can't look away. The magical realism elements in this book enabled Jojo to confront the many sources of trauma  his family has. Jojo's grandfather described how his time in prison has shaped his life. The prison conditions described in the book were shocking and brutal. Men were worked to the bone and half starved for years. Jojo has to grow up fast and become hyper aware of how to act and hold himself in through uncomfortable situations in this book. Throughout horrific racist injustice this family survived to make a life for themselves. But they didn't make it through unscathed.
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 of them throughout. 
The narrative alternated from Jojo's and Leonie's perspectives. Leonie's life story does shed light on what led to her drug use. But I was never able to fully empathize with Leonie despite the many complicated reasons she was unable to nurture her children. This book struck  me emotionally because I also had a mother who was unable to parent because of drug use. The metamorphosis of the characters was subtle but the ending gave some hopeful clues that the future for this family may not be as bleak at this book. I would recommend this to everyone because the topics and issues covered are relatable, profound and ongoing.


 Jesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMB, A Public Space and The Oxford American.


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