As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the story of a few days in the lives of a tumultuous Mississippi Gulf Coast family and the histories and ghosts that haunt it, is nothing short of magnificent. 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.
But first, it tells a great story.
Pop and Mam, an elderly African-American couple living in a shabby country home surrounded by chickens, goats and tall pines growing out of red clay, are lovingly raising their grandchildren, Jojo, 13, and Kayla, 3. The elders are wise, taciturn and kind, but Mam is dying of cancer, her breath “a jagged wind,” and the children are being reclaimed by their parents, Pop and Mam’s daughter, Leonie, and her husband, Michael, who has just been released from Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary where Pop also spent time, long ago.
Leonie and Michael are an interracial couple, which matters little to them and very much to Michael’s white family, which long ago had a role in the death of Leonie’s teen brother, Given. The couple are tightly bound by a consumptive love that shuts out everyone else — including their children — and by their addiction to meth. “We hold hands and pretend at forgetting,” Leonie says of their toxic bond. When she packs up the kids to travel to Parchman and bring Michael home, disasters pop up like roadkill.
Also along for the ride on this Homeric journey are two ghosts: Given, the lost brother, and Richie, a boy who died years ago at Parchman. Both died violently, the former in modern times and the latter during the Jim Crow era, in ways that reflect the worst of American race relations then and now.
Three narrators tell the story — young Jojo, damaged Leonie and ghostly Richie, with the threads of their tales slowly coming together in a powerful end. The book’s title could be read two ways — as an ode to the haunting music of the undead, whose histories shape our own, or as an exhortation to those still living to stand tall and proud against every form of bondage.
Ward’s characters are humble and epic, especially Pop and Jojo, linked by a love and respect that bridges the gap created by the wasted generation between them.
Ward, a professor of creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans, has penned several award-winning books that examine race in America, including the fiction “Salvage the Bones,” winner of the 2011 National Book Award, and the memoir “Men We Reaped.” This novel is her best yet. Her voice is calm, wise, powerful. Politics and outrage are wholly absent from “Sing,” and yet it beautifully illuminates the issues that wrack our nation through the story of one American family that we finally recognize as — us.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
By: Jesmyn Ward.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, 289 pages, $26.
Pen Pals Lecture Series, May 3 and 4, 2018, Hopkins Center for the Arts. Tickets $40-50.