“Sing Unburied Sing ” is a brilliantly evocative novel about race, family, love and addiction, with a touch of magic realism and spiritualism.
Thirteen year old Jojo and his sister, Kayla, live with their mother, Leonie, their Father, Michael and their grandparents, Pop and Mam. Jojo (Joseph) and Kayla (Michaela) have never met their paternal grandparents, even though they live in close proximity. Grandfather Joseph will not accept them.
We first meet Jojo on his birthday, when Pap takes him out to slaughter a goat and Jojo becomes physically ill from the experience. Jojo’s mother, whom he calls Leonie, returns from a drug riddled outing with a pathetic little cake made for a baby shower and very little else. Jojo’s father, whom he calls Michael, calls from prison to say he is being released in a week (but notably not to wish happy birthday to his son).
Early in the novel, Pap explains to Jojo that “there’s spirit in everything. In the trees, in the moon, in the sun, in the animals…But you need all of them, all of that spirit in everything, to have balance.” Jojo and Leonie have a sense of spirituality. Jojo has the ability to understand the animals and the spiritual quality to see and converse with ghosts. Leonie can see and converse with her dead brother, Given, but only when she is high (which is a lot of the time). Mam can heal with herbs and plants based solely on her sense of what works. However, unfortunately, during the course of the book Mam is dying of cancer and even her skill cannot save her.
After Jojo’s lackluster birthday, much of the balance of the book is the trip that Leonie, Jojo, Kayla and Leonie’s friend, Misty take to pick up Michael from prison and to return home. Michael is incarcerated at Parchman, coincidentally enough the same prison where Pap was imprisoned years earlier simply for being his brother’s brother. In those days Parchman was especially brutal and the best days consisted of physical labor. While in Parchman, Pap met a boy even younger than he by the name of Richie. Richie suffered more than most while in Parchman.
The story moves back and forth between the trip to and from Parchman, Pap’s experience in Parchman and recollections of Richie, and Jojo’s experiences. The story is told in part by Leonie, in part by Jojo, with interludes from Richie.
Throughout the lengthy drive to Parchman, we get a good sense of the relationship between Leonie and her children. Leonie’s parental emotions and behaviors are complex, moving from love to hatred to violence to jealousy. Jojo appears to be more of a parent to Kayla than Leonie or Michael. Leonie and Misty spend a great deal of time high, yet Leonie’s attitude toward the people they encounter on the trip is one of superiority, suspicion and disdain. After Michael is released, they go to his parent’s house to introduce his parents to their grandchildren but the introduction does not go well.
The characters in this novel are complex. It is a story of intense emotion and conflict, both internal and external. Ward does an excellent job of evoking all of these emotions without telling you how to feel. This is the second good novel I have read in 2017 and you should read it too! You will be able to reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11290568__Ssing%20unburied%20sing__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold