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Friday, January 05, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, and it was most deserved. It is set in the same place as the other winner, Salvage the Bones, in Mississippi, a state that people who don't live there think pretty badly of, if they think of it all.

The story centers around a family and uses multiple narrators. There's JoJo, a boy who lives with his mother and grandparents. He is most attached to his grandfather, Pop: "When I was nine, Pop was good at everything." Mam, his grandma, is bed-ridden and dying of cancer.

The other narrator is his mother, Leonie, who Mam accurately describes as missing a maternal nature. Leonie's husband, who is white, is in prison, but is getting out. Much of the book is the trip that Leonie, JoJo, little sister Kayla, and a white friend (who is visiting her own man at the prison) take to pick him up.

There are all sorts of mishaps along the way. Kayla can't stop throwing up, which kind of saves them when they are pulled over by police and she upchucks all over him. Leonie gets sick, and Michael feeds her milk and charcoal, purchases at a gas station. And then a ghost appears: Richie, who was killed when Pop was at the same prison, years and years ago. How and why Richie died is the climax of the story.

We also get a visit to Michael's parents. His father is adamant that he will not let them in the house, because he is an old bigot. The mother is more tolerant, but not much.

A second ghost appears to Leonie, her brother Given, who was killed by a white man. At the end of the book there are spirits everywhere. In a particularly gripping scene, JoJo looks into the trees and sees hundreds of ghosts, just sitting there. He's like the little boy in The Sixth Sense--he sees dead people.

Ward's ties to the land are obvious. The language sings: "Even if he didn’t carry the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and the skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes, and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him. The sharp nose. The eyes dark as swamp bottom. The way his bones run straight and true as River’s: indomitable as cypress. He is River’s child."

I do have one misgiving; Ward uses first-person narration, but her characters think in much more educated terms that one might expect. Would a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in that place know the word ululate? Twice characters refer to a murder of crows, something that is not generally known to the average person. Ward may just be using her characters to write what she knows, but it is a little head-scratching.

But make no mistake, this is a wonderful book, full of humanity and achingingly poignant. This is the first book I've read in 2018, and it may hold up as the best.

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