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March 2019: Sing, Unburied, Sing (Ward)

posted Apr 13, 2019, 5:41 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated Apr 13, 2019, 5:42 PM ]

Set in rural Mississippi, Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intoxicating blend of coming of age tale, road trip saga and ghost story.  The novel rotates between the voices of three different narrators.  The first, Jojo, is a thirteen-year-old, biracial boy struggling to become a man in the face of the increasing frailty of the grandparents who care for him and for his three-year-old sister, Kayla.   The second narrator is Leonie, Jojo’s frequently absent and drug-addicted mother, who is both figuratively and literarily haunted by the violent death of her brother.  The third is Richie, the ghost of a young man who played an important, and tragic, role in the life of Leonie’s father.  


In the beginning of the novel, Leonie learns that Michael, her white boy-friend and the father of her children, is being released from prison.  Together with a friend, she loads Jojo and Kayla into her car and drives north to pick him up from Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious state penitentiary.   The trip is an effort to reunite and repair the family, but this journey to the future transforms into a trip into the past, forcing them to confront painful and unspoken truths.


Like Faulkner and Morrison, Ward describes both the natural and social landscape of the American South in an evocative, and almost palpable, detail that is at once both beautiful and harrowing.  The book weaves through a fabric of trauma, both personal and systemic.   In an interview with NPR, Ward commented that she was interested in exploring the intimacy of a lot of the racial violence in the South, the fact that crimes are often committed by people who know each other and who share a community.   Certainly, we see the strength and love that ties the various characters in the book together, but we also see how vulnerable they are to each other and deeply they have been wounded.  Though not without hope, the novel highlights the devastating legacy of slavery, racism and social injustice and the horrifying costs of our modern drug crisis.   


These themes were so grim and lugubrious, that it made the novel difficult to read at times.  In fact, one of our members found it so dire that she marveled at the fact the book had received such critical acclaim.  However, most of us found the book as emotionally rewarding as it was taxing.  Perhaps, this was because the central characters were so richly developed.  Whether empathizing with them, getting angry on their behalf, or becoming frustrated with their choices, we felt a deep connection to them, and this tie made us want to push through the pain and trauma to see if some sort of healing or reconciliation was possible.  After all, the tragic history that shapes this book is a history that we all share as Americans, and it seems right that Ward has us face it in all its complexity.  As she masterfully illustrates with her storytelling, the signs of hope are uncertain, hazy and sometimes even ghost-like, but that doesn’t mean they are not there.

Our March meeting also marked the 25th anniversary of our book club - read more about that here.