I am in a rush to write this review tonight for Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Why? Because the Pulitzer Prizes are being announced tomorrow and I have a funny feeling that this is the book which will take the top prize for fiction literature this year. And I want the world to know that I picked it, too!
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a tough book to read because it deals with a tough topic. In fact, I am not sure I will ever "recommend" this book since I doubt anyone will every say that they like it and by extension will wonder about my taste. But the writing. Oh my, the writing.
The story is about a multi-generational family living in Mississippi, barely eking out an existence on a small farm. It is told through the voices of several narrators: Jojo, a 13-year-old son of a black mother and white father; Leonie, his drug-addicted mother; and the tortured soul of a boy, now a ghost, that Pop, Jojo's granddad, knew when he was imprisoned in Parchment, the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The story begins with a torturous road trip when Leonie insists that her children accompany her and a drug-using friend to pick up their white father, who coincidentally has also been imprisoned in Parchment. Leonie has the best intentions of making this trip a fine, family event but things are doomed from the start. The kids don't want to go, they want to stay with their Mam and Pop. Leonie doesn't seem to be able to love her children with any kind of consistency. Once on the road, everything goes wrong: a side trip to buy and sell drugs, Kayla, the young 3-year-old daughter, gets sick and keeps throwing up; no provisions of food and water are offered to the children until much too late, and Leonie and Misty spend the night getting high. Leonie wants to be a good mom, but can't pull it off for long because she is jealous of the relationhship her children have with each other,
“But another part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don't have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other's light.”If that isn't bad enough, once they get to the penitentiary to pick up their boyfriend/father, the ghost of Richie enters the car, wanting to share the story of how he dies. Jojo and Kayla can both see and hear him. The trip home to the farm is just as harrowing as the first leg.
Once they finally get home, the traumas do not end. Death is around the corner and the whole house and yard seems to be filled with ghosts: Given, who died in an "accident"; Richie; and so many others that Jojo thinks a tree is filled with them. One thing all these ghosts have in common---they are died tortuous deaths. Ghosts of the tortures of past in African American families---lynchings, unjustified deaths, all heart-breaking circumstances.
Last week I was watching a news program which highlighted a new museum, The National Museum of Peace and Justice "dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence." Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, explained to the host that our history of lynching and our inability to disavow our past and seek reconciliation is keeping our country stuck in our racist attitudes. Learning about the lynchings, the horrors of these deaths, naming the people who died, can help us start healing.
Writing for the Washington Post, Ron Charles said, "In Sing, Unburied, Sing Ward employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism." The family may be living today, but they are still haunted by the ghosts of the past and carry them around with them wherever they go.
This book just about broke my heart but I think it is so important that we all raise our awareness about the injustices that just keep coming. And as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." We can no longer stay silent. I hope this book moves all of its readers to speak out against injustices everywhere, especially toward those people still chained to the past.
Now we wait to see if I am correct. Will Sing, Unburied, Sing win the Pulitzer Prize tomorrow? I hope so.
1:30 PM, PDT
I was wrong. I admit it. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is Less by Andrew Greer. I have placed a hold for the audiobook at the library. I am looking forward to reading it since it sounds like a romantic comedy and I have only been reading really serious stuff lately. Here is a quick synopsis of the book: