What serendipitous timing. The day after I started reading her latest book, the announcement came that Jesmyn Ward was the recipient of one of this year's MacArthur "Genius" grants. Having now finished the book, I concur with MacArthur's assessment. Jesmyn Ward is a genius.
When this book first came out and was reviewed, I remember reading that Ward kept a copy of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech hanging above her desk. In that speech, he admonished writers to write from the heart and to wrestle with the immortal truths of "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." It's clear that she has fully internalized the message of those words. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, she has ticked each of those boxes of the immortal truths.
In this book as in her 2011 National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones (still sitting in my reading queue waiting to be read), Ward takes us to Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, that Gulf Coast town that may eventually be as famous as Yoknapatawpha County in North Mississippi. There we meet 13-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla (Michaela) who live with and are cared for by their grandparents Mam and Pop. Flitting in and out of their lives is their drug-addicted mother, Leonie. The children's father, Michael, is in the state prison at Parchman.
Mam, Pop, and Leonie are African-American. Michael is white. Thus, the children are biracial. Their father's family refuses to accept them.
These two families are tangled together by more than the blood of the two children. Years before, Leonie's older brother, Given, was shot and killed by Michael's cousin. The two were on a hunting trip together with other teenage boys. The authorities chose to see the killing as a hunting accident, but in fact it was a racially motivated killing incited by the white man losing a bet to the black man. That unacknowledged crime continues to haunt the families.
Pop takes care of the homestead, the animals, the garden, and tries to teach Jojo how to be an honorable man. Jojo, in turn, cares for his young sister. Mam is bedridden, in the last stages of cancer. As she lies dying, her spirit is still a formidable presence in the lives of her family.
Mam has some mystical powers and is able to see and sense things beyond the natural world. Her daughter and the two grandchildren have some of the same powers, although Leonie's only seem to be manifested when she is high.
Soon after we meet the family, Leonie receives word that Michael is to be released from prison and she hatches a plan to take her children and her drug-buddy best friend on a road trip to pick him up. It's a plan that seems, frankly, doomed to disaster from the start.
Along the way, Leonie and her friend just can't resist a detour to get high and to pick up some drugs which may be intended for sale. Kayla gets sick and throws up repeatedly on herself and Jojo and the back seat of the car. Yes, it is a disaster.
Whenever Leonie is high, she sees her dead brother, Given. As the road trip nears Parchman, Jojo picks up his own ghost - a boy around his age named Richie. Richie had been incarcerated there at the same time that Pop was. (All the adult men in this story seem to have served time in Parchman.) Pop had been Richie's friend who had tried to protect him, and Richie senses his blood in Jojo and looks to him to help free his spirit so that he can finally be released from Parchman and "go home".
So, in addition to a dysfunctional family story and a road trip story, we get a ghost story. The ghosts will play an important role in the conclusion of this tale.
This is such a wrenching story, at times almost physically painful to read. At the same time, there is so much tenderness here, in the relationship between the young siblings and between Pop and the grandchildren and Mam and the grandchildren. It is surely created from the heart, as Faulkner exhorted, and it has the ring of truth.
This book reminded me in many ways of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It has the universal power of a Greek myth, and it makes poetry of the lives of the residents of the small, mostly poor, mostly black town of Bois Sauvage, a fictionalized version of Ward's own home town.
Savage wood. Well-named.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars