Summary and book reviews of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward X
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2018, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Chapter 1
Jojo

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it's something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that's how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I've earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I'm ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today's my birthday.

I grab the door so it don't slam, ease it into the jamb. I don't want Mam or Kayla to wake up with none of us in the house. Better for them to sleep. Better for my little sister, Kayla, to sleep, because on nights when Leonie's out working, she wake up every hour, sit straight up in the bed, and scream. Better for Grandma Mam to sleep, because the chemo done dried her ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel begins with Jojo's thoughts, "I like to think I know what death is" and "I want Pop to know I can get bloody" (page 1). How do these thoughts set the stage for Jojo's birthday and what follows?
  2. How does Given's death shape Leonie, Pop, and Mam? How does it change how they relate to each other?
  3. Why does Given begin appearing to Leonie after Michael goes to jail, whenever she gets high? Why doesn't Leonie tell anyone about seeing Given?
  4. Leonie says from the first moment she saw Michael, he "saw me....Saw the walking wound I was and came to be my balm" (page 54). Discuss how guilt, desire, taboo, defiance, and grief are at work in Michael and Leonie's connection to each other.
  5. What does Leonie ...
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  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2017

  • award image

    Indie Booksellers’ Choice Awards
    2018

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

"Watching the family grabs me inside, twists, and pulls tight. It hurts. It hurts so much I can't look at it," Richie once says. The same could be said of the reader as misery after misfortune seems to pile on thick for Jojo and his loved ones. Yet despite their trying circumstances, the novel is nowhere near bleak. In fact, just as the title promises, it sings — the ghosts and the cast of characters together create a beautiful and haunting melody, one that resonates long after the last page is turned.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review (680 words).

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Media Reviews

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Combining stark circumstances with magical realism, it illuminates America’s love-hate tug between the races in a way that we seem incapable of doing anywhere else but in occasional blessed works of art.

Boston Globe
Staggering ... even more expansive and layered [than Salvage the Bones]. A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Ward’s novel hits full stride when Leonie takes her children and a friend and hits the road to pick up her children’s father, Michael, from prison.

Entertainment Weekly
Ward's execution is anything but [familiar]; her first foray into magical realism is downright luminous.

Garden & Gun
No reason to delay this spell-bound verdict: With Sing, Unburied, Sing, her third novel, Jesmyn Ward becomes the standard-bearer for contemporary Southern fiction, its fullest, most forceful, most vibrant, and most electrifying voice.

BBC
Ward unearths layers of history in gorgeous textured language, ending with an unearthly chord.

Booklist
In her first novel since the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (2011), Ward renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a distinctive style that is at once down-to-earth and magical.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Throughout the novel ... are beautifully crafted moments of tenderness...their stories are deeply affecting, in no small part because of Ward's brilliant writing and compassionate eye.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Lyrical yet tough, Ward's distilled language effectively captures the hard lives, fraught relationships, and spiritual depth of her characters.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise.

Author Blurb Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost
If Sing, Unburied, Sing is proof of anything, it’s that when it comes to spinning poetic tales of love and family, and the social metastasis that often takes place but goes unspoken of in marginalized communities - let alone the black American South - Jesmyn Ward is, by far, the best doing it today. Another masterpiece.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
The connection between the injustices of the past and the desperation of present are clearly drawn in Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book that charts the lines between the living and the dead, the loving and the broken. I am a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward’s work, and this book proves that she is one of the most important writers in America today.

Author Blurb Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a road novel turned on its head, and a family story with its feet to the fire. Lyric and devastating, Ward's unforgettable characters straddle past and present in this spellbinding return to the rural Mississippi of her first book.  You'll never read anything like it.

Author Blurb Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
Read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and you’ll feel the immense weight of history—and the immense strength it takes to persevere in the face of it. This novel is a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow have passed, and anyone who assumes the ghosts of the past are easy to placate. It’s hard to imagine a more necessary book for this political era.

Reader Reviews

Nadja

This will haunt you (in a good way)
I love Jesmyn Ward, so I grabbed this off the ARC shelf at work as soon as I saw it! She writes in a way that sucks you into the world of the characters, and manages to evoke pity even for the most unlikeable people by giving us a way to connect with...   Read More

BookReporter

Character driven ghostly drama!
The meat in this book is all the characters and their portrayal as a part of a rural poor family set in the south. The writing is amazing and it gives a vivid picture of their lives. The story highlights a lot of complicated family dynamics and also ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Prison Labor

Parchman LaborersIn Sing, Unburied, Sing, Pop serves time at the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi, the maximum security state penitentiary. While a prisoner, he toils in the cotton fields. "I'd worked, but never like that," he recalls. "Never sunup to sundown in no cotton field. Never in that kind of heat. It's different up there. The heat. Ain't no water to catch the wind and cool you off, so the heat settles and bakes. Like a wet oven."

If this sounds like slavery that's because it essentially is. And while slavery was declared unconstitutional in the United States in 1865, with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a small but significant exception paved the way for prisoners to be used as free labor. "Neither slavery nor involuntary ...

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