Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in 2017. Rotating through the perspectives of several characters, it chronicles the relationships of a dysfunctional family in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Blending the mythical with the real, it explores themes surrounding race, family, love, and death. Sing, Unburied, Sing received positive reviews from critics and went on to receive numerous accolades, including the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction.

Plot Summary

On Jojo's thirteenth birthday, he helps his grandfather, Pop, kill a goat. Over goat stew that night, Pop tells him the story of how he went to jail at age fifteen when his brother, Stag, got into a bar fight; the cops arrested them both because of their race. In jail, Pop met a twelve-year-old boy named Richie, whom he befriended and tried his best to protect. Meanwhile, Jojo's mother, Leonie, learns that Michael, her longtime boyfriend and the father of her children, is being released from Parchman prison after serving a three-year sentence for cooking meth. Jojo distrusts Leonie, because she is a drug addict who neglects the responsibilities of being a mother. Leonie’s irresponsibility and neglect have forced Jojo to act as a parent to his younger sister, Kayla.

After Leonie argues with Pop and Mam over whether she should bring the children along to pick up Michael, she sets out for Parchman with Jojo and Kayla. She hopes that by bringing the children to pick up their father, they can be a family again. They are joined by Leonie’s coworker and fellow drug addict Misty, whose boyfriend is also at Parchman. On the way, they take a detour to Misty’s friend’s house, where they are given a bag of meth. Misty, who has experience running drugs, reassures a nervous Leonie that everything will be fine. They successfully deliver the meth to Michael’s lawyer, Al, who gives them food and lets them stay the night in his home. The next day, they arrive at Parchman and pick up Michael. Leonie greets him warmly, but Jojo and Kayla are unable to view him as a father since he has been such an inconsistent figure in their lives.

As the group leaves Parchman, Richie’s ghost appears to Jojo and states that he was killed while on the run from the prison. Richie recognizes Jojo as Pop’s descendant, and his memories of the events surrounding his death slowly begin to return. However, he is unable to recall exactly how he died and hopes that by following Jojo home, he will be able to find answers.

The trip home is uncomfortable for everyone; Leonie and Michael grow increasingly frustrated with Jojo and Kayla, who do not respect them as parents. They are forced to stay the night at Al’s house again after Kayla vomits in the car. They depart the next day, and Al gives Michael a portion of the meth that Misty and Leonie delivered on their first visit. Once they are back on the road, the group is pulled over by a police officer, and knowing they don’t have time to hide the meth, Leonie swallows all of it. The officer, after hearing that the group is coming from Parchman, handcuffs Leonie, Michael, and Jojo. Things escalate when Jojo reaches into his pocket and the officer assumes he is pulling out a weapon. He forces Jojo onto the ground and points a gun at him, to everyone else’s shock and horror. The situation is resolved when Kayla vomits again and cries out for Jojo, leading the officer to search Jojo’s pockets and realize that...

(This entire section contains 1045 words.)

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all he had was a rock. Leonie quickly becomes ill as a result of the swallowed meth, and Misty and Michael worriedly feed her charcoal and milk until she finally throws it up.

After returning to the house, the group finds that Mam and Pop are not there. Michael insists on taking the kids to visit his parents, who disapprove of Leonie because of her race. Though Michael’s mother, Maggie, tries to be civil and introduces herself to the children, his father, Big Joseph, is rude and dismissive. After Big Joseph criticizes Leonie and calls her a racial slur, Michael attacks him. While the two men fight, Leonie quietly leads Jojo and Kayla out to the car. They then return to Mam and Pop’s house, where Pop greets them from the porch. Inside, cancer-stricken Mam informs Leonie that she is ready to die and asks her daughter to gather the necessary items for a death ritual.

Meanwhile, Richie tries to talk to Pop, but Pop is unable to see or hear him. Richie then turns to Jojo and asks him to have Pop tell the story of Richie’s death. Pop reluctantly does so. While Richie was in jail with Pop, he witnessed a man named Blue raping a female inmate. Blue and Richie escaped together, but Blue tried to rape someone else while on the run. Richie stopped him, but they were then found by a lynch mob. The mob skinned and dismembered Blue alive, but Pop intervened before the same fate befell Richie, instead giving him a more merciful death by stabbing him in the neck.

After telling Jojo about Richie's death, Pop begins to cry, and Richie's spirit screams and disappears. He then reappears in the form of Leonie's dead brother, Given, and tries to take Mam to the afterlife as revenge for his own untimely death. Jojo succeeds in banishing Richie, but Mam instead follows the real Given to the afterlife and dies peacefully. Michael returns and he and Leonie leave to get high. Leonie admits that she is unable to be a mother to her children.

The novel ends with an episode told from Jojo's point of view. He states that he now sleeps in Leonie's bed, since Leonie and Michael are rarely home. Pop continues searching for Mam in his dreams and speaks restlessly in his sleep. Jojo is unable to see the spirits of Mam and Given, but he still sees Richie and other spirits who died violently. Kayla tries to banish them without success. She then begins singing, which gives the spirits relief from their pain.


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Author: Jesmyn Ward (b. 1977)

Publisher: Scribner (New York). 304 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Largely after 2005

Locale: Mississippi

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel that follows an African American family living on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi that is haunted by the past. It is American writer Jesmyn Ward’s third novel.

Principal characters

Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy who lives with his mother, sister, and grandparents on a farm

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Courtesy of Scribner

Jesmyn Ward

Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

Leonie, his mother, an African American woman

Michael, his father, a white man who has been in prison for three years

Pop, his grandfather, who runs a farm with livestock

Mam, his grandmother

Kayla, his little sister

Richie, a dead boy whom Pop was incarcerated with decades earlier and one of the novel’s narrators

The American South has long proved to be a rich tapestry for writers—a fact that has been well illustrated by authors such as Mark Twain (1835–1910), William Faulkner (1897–1962), and Harper Lee (1926–2016). And while it is considered inspirational for a number of different reasons, perhaps the most significant is the contradictions that run deep within the region’s culture. On the surface, the South is composed of communities where wholesome Christian values reign supreme and everyone knows one another’s names. However, it is also a place where such community members inflict terror and project prejudice on their neighbors, as evidenced by the history of harassment and violence imposed on African Americans who live there that has continued into the twenty-first century.

Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward is a writer who continues this tradition of using the South as a microcosm within which to examine America as a whole and its dark history. This first became evident in her breakthrough, National Book Award–winning novel Salvage the Bones (2011), which follows a working-class African American family over the course of twelve days leading up to and during Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster that devastated the Gulf Coast and the lives of many people who lived there. Inspired by Ward’s own experience surviving the hurricane, Salvage the Bones takes an unapologetic look at the second-class citizen treatment of African Americans and how such treatment instills fragile fault lines in families that easily break into irreparable fractures in times of crisis.

In many ways, Ward’s brilliant third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), feels like a continuation of Salvage the Bones.Like its predecessor, Sing, Unburied, Sing is about an African American family living in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Although it is set several years after Hurricane Katrina, the book is also about marginalized characters facing forces of impending doom. Furthermore, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a narrative that focuses especially on the experiences of young people of color living in the South. Just as Salvage the Bones was predominantly about teenaged brother and sister Skeetah and Esch, the two major story lines of Sing, Unburied, Sing are those of thirteen-year-old Jojo and his mother, Leonie.

The novel follows these two characters, shifting back and forth between their first-person, present-tense narrations. Jojo is the more likeable narrator of the two. Ward depicts Jojo as a sensitive, observant individual. These are qualities that allow him to take care of his younger sister, Kayla, as well as the animals on the farm on which they live. The only person Jojo does not understand is his mother; it is this lack of understanding that creates a conflicted, albeit compelling, dynamic between the two characters. Meanwhile, Jojo idolizes his grandfather, Pop, and frequently asks him to tell stories about the time he was unjustly sent to a prison called Parchman decades earlier. Pop’s stories about his time at Parchman act as a vessel to introduce readers to the character of Richie. Richie was an African American boy sent to Parchman prison at the age of twelve, where, like the other inmates, he was beaten and made to work the fields like a slave. He died at Parchman and eventually becomes the third Sing, Unburied, Sing narrator.

Although Leonie is a less sympathetic character, she is still presented as deeply human. This is thanks to Ward’s decision to write all of her characters with the same level of honest vulnerability. A young mother with two children, Leonie works as a cocktail waitress and struggles with drug abuse. She is a directionless individual until the night of Jojo’s thirteenth birthday, when she receives a phone call that his father, Michael, is being released from prison. It is a seemingly innocuous moment that proves to be the novel’s inciting incident, as Leonie decides that it is an opportunity for her family to be whole again. She takes Jojo and Kayla on a road trip to pick Michael up, bringing her friend Misty along. Before they leave, Misty convinces Leonie to use the trip as a chance to transport meth for a drug dealer; she agrees and thereby instigates a tragic series of events that unfold throughout the rest of the novel.

Ward’s choice to alternate between different perspectives and use a first-person, stream-of-consciousness style of writing is a powerful literary tool. From chapter to chapter, readers are exposed to completely different perspectives on the exact same events. It is especially emotionally wrenching to learn how an alienated mother and son view one another. For example, Leonie thinks she is taking the actions necessary to bring her family together and subsequently is being a good mother. Contrarily, Jojo thinks she is a selfish, incompetent caretaker and does not even call her “Mom” but instead refers to her by her first name. He resents her for the way she treats his baby sister, a character who symbolically embodies the different ways that Jojo and Leonie view the world. This is apparent even in the names they use for her; where Jojo affectionately calls his sister “Kayla,” Leonie refers to her only as “Michaela.” Ultimately, it is Ward’s masterful use of multiple character perspectives combined with the setting of the American South that makes Sing, Unburied, Sing feel as though it belongs in the same canon as the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

As a work of literature, Sing, Unburied, Sing can be categorized as magical realism. Although the characters operate in a contemporary world, they endure supernatural experiences. This is primarily evident in the way that Ward shows how the dead continue to exist among the living. Whenever Leonie uses drugs, she sees her dead brother, Given. A high school football star, Given was killed years earlier by his white teammates on a hunting trip. The character of Richie is another ghost that follows Jojo around and provides a third-person perspective about the boy and his family’s experiences. Beyond the presence of the dead, there are other aspects of the narrative that qualify it as magical realism. For instance, many of the characters have special abilities. Most notably, Jojo can understand what animals are saying. It is a power that he shares with his relative, River, whom he looks like. Between the presence of ghosts and characters with special powers, Sing, Unburied, Sing ostensibly should be designated as fantasy. However, Ward employs these elements in such a way that the story feels like a slightly heightened reality.

One of the most powerful themes of Sing, Unburied, Sing is that of generational racism. Through the story of Pop and Richie’s time at Parchman, readers learn how African American men were treated as slaves long into the twentieth century. After Pop is sent to Parchman prison for upsetting some white men, he is forced to work the fields. Anyone who disobeyed the prison guards would be whipped so badly that their backs would be flayed. It is particularly disturbing knowing that Richie was only twelve years old but was still sent to prison for stealing food for his family and spared no mercy because of his age. Pop’s son, Given, was also the victim of racism, dying at the hands of his white teammates simply because he won a bet. The fact that it was so easy for his teammate to pull the trigger in a moment of anger and not face any legal consequences is a testament to how African American lives are valued in American society. In a disturbing scene with a policeman, Jojo also becomes a victim of racism at the age of thirteen. While his narration is that of an innocent child, the police and the rest of the world treat him as if he were a dangerous criminal because of the way he looks. Ward is subtle when depicting these events, and yet it is still highly effective in capturing the sense of ugliness and injustice.

The reception of Sing, Unburied, Sing has been overwhelmingly positive. A common point of praise among literary critics has been Ward’s ability to leverage a unique literary style in order to make powerful commentary. In her review for the Atlantic,Adrienne Green wrote, “Throughout, there’s no escaping Ward’s political rendering of American history. She uses a haunting, magical-realist style to masterfully warp two of life’s most inflexible realities: time and death. Her book seems to ask whether a family or nation can atone for inequities that remain well and alive.” Many other critics similarly marveled at Ward’s ambitiousness; the scope of her story is enormous both in the number of characters that comprise the narrative as well as the significant issues that it explores. In addition to time and death, the author examines the dynamics of family, race, and life in the American South. It is a lot to balance and could easily feel overwhelming, but Ward’s literary prowess prevents this from happening.

Most reviews extolled the prose of Sing, Unburied, Sing, describing it as “lyrical,” which can be attributed to Ward’s background as a poet. However, some critics have argued that, at times, this poetic tendency can feel tedious. For example, Annalisa Quinn wrote for NPR that “Ward’s lyricism tips occasionally into floweriness. Lush phrases smother each other, certain metaphors begin to drag after enough uses.” While some readers may become exhausted with this stylistic element of the novel, it feels fitting for the story. In his New Yorker review, Vinson Cunningham argued that the book’s occasionally overwrought tone is “appropriate to its purposes, and its origins,” and that the author’s lyricism feels inextricable from the Gulf Coast politics that emerged after Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, it can be argued that the style and tone are reflective of the tradition of southern writing and enhance the narrative’s supernatural elements as well as its setting.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is demonstrative of a fiction writer at the height of her mastery. While Ward’s earlier works have earned significant acclaim, the success of her third novel has been unprecedented. Sing, Unburied, Sing earned Ward her second National Book Award for fiction, making her the first woman to ever win the honor twice. Additionally, the novel led to Ward receiving a MacArthur Fellowship grant, and it was noted by former president Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of 2017. With such accolades, it is clear that the publication of Sing, Unburied, Sing has brought Ward further into the forefront of contemporary American literature as one of its most important contributors.

Review Sources

  • Charles, Ron. “Jesmyn Ward’s Powerful New Novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. The Washington Post, 29 Aug. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
  • Cunningham, Vinson. “Jesmyn Ward’s Haunted Novel of the Gulf Coast.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. The New Yorker, 11 Sept. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
  • Green, Adrienne. “Jesmyn Ward’s Eerie, Powerful Unearthing of History.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. The Atlantic, 28 Sept. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “Sing Mourns the Dead, Both Buried and Unburied.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. NPR, 6 Sept. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
  • Sandhu, Sukhdev. “Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward Review—Slow Apocalypse of Black America.” Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.