Book review: ‘Sing Unburied Sing’ depicts wandering spirits

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Narrated through the eyes of several of the main characters, Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel “Sing Unburied Sing” is unique. Richie, one of the narrators, is a ghost, one of the unburied. It turns out that if your death was so violent that even God can’t look, your spirit wanders, looking for a way in. At the end of the book, at least part of the way is revealed.

The story is about a dysfunctional family that lives on a farm on the gulf coast of Mississippi. Some members of the family have the gift of “seeing.” In some the past, some the future and some the unburied. Add to this that the mother, Leonie, is drug addicted and visions abound. With a drug-addicted mother, Jojo and Kayla live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Leonie is in the picture from time to time usually to complicate things. Kayla has learned she can depend on Jojo, and she often needs to rely on him just to have her basic needs met. Mam explains that Leonie loves them but she “don’t know how to show it,” or feed them, for that matter.

Pop has his hands full, as Mam is dying of cancer. When she has used all of healing knowledge she possesses on herself, she concludes that the end is near. She sets Leonie about assembling the things that will allow her to get to “the other side of the door.” Leonie assembles cemetery rocks and an assortment of household items believed to hasten the journey. The collection eventually works, and Mam’s dead son comes as an escort.

Central to the book is the trip to get Michael, white father of the children, just released from the penitentiary. It’s not clear why he was there, but it was likely drug related. The trip is seen through the eyes of several of the characters. It is most difficult for the children, as Leonie’s mind is on Michael’s return.

Not surprisingly, drugs play a part in this trip as well. As though there weren’t enough problems, the mixed-race relationship between Michael and Leonie is simply not accepted by Michael’s parents — so much for their role as grandparents.

It is made clear that Leonie’s parents, Mam and Pop, have raised Jojo well and that he serves as Kayla’s guardian. She, as it turns out, is key dealing with the unburied. The book gives us the gift of “vision” of sorts. We can “see” into another way of life, fortunately without having to live it.

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