Two Mississippi

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel BY Jesmyn Ward. Scribner. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County and Jesmyn Ward has Bois Sauvage—neither real, both true. Faulkner reimagined Lafayette County, in the northern half of Mississippi, while Ward has used Bois Sauvage in three novels to stand in for the small towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which could include DeLisle, where Ward grew up. Ward’s 2008 debut, Where the Line Bleeds, is about twin brothers struggling to get by in Bois Sauvage. Salvage the Bones (2011) follows Esch, a pregnant teenager who loves Greek mythology, living in the days before Hurricane Katrina. (This won Ward the National Book Award for fiction.) Sing, Unburied, Sing makes reference to As I Lay Dying, though it doesn’t need Faulkner to make its bones. Both novels are round-trips that become marathons. Faulkner’s laying-down person is Addie, who leaves the physical world early in the narrative. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, it is one of two grandparents, Mam, who is lying at the edge of the next world, but for the entire book. Ward employs three different voices, rather than Faulkner’s fifteen, to tell a story. The strongest affinity is that Faulkner and Ward both approach time and death as flexible arrangements. Unburied’s ghost teen, Richie, tells its living teen, Jojo: “You don’t know shit about time.”

Leonie, Mam’s daughter, was also a teen mom, like Esch in Salvage the Bones. No longer a teen but still a mom, she is now haphazardly raising two children fathered by Michael, the only white man in her tenuous family. Michael is about to get out of the same prison—Parchman—that her father, River, was in. Known as Pop to the family, River has built the small house they live in, ringed by animal pens and woods he refuses to clear. As he tells Jojo, his grandson, “If anybody come back here trying to mess with my animals, I can hear them coming through these trees.”

Leonie has decided to take her children to pick up Michael at Parchman, though Jojo and younger Kayla barely know him. This move is Leonie stumbling toward a state of acceptance that Michael represents, an easy attachment that mimics the bonds of family but drops all the grinding daily work that family demands. Leonie’s drug habit might seem like the cause for her disconnect from others, but to Mam, Leonie’s isolation has been with her since birth. From her deathbed, she tells Jojo, in many ways the most active parent in the book, “She ain’t never going to feed you.” And Jojo doesn’t just parent himself, and Kayla—he eventually becomes the de facto protector of Richie (or at least his ghost), whom River once protected at Parchman.

Who takes care of whom is a question wound into the coils of Sing, Unburied, Sing. Or, more precisely, who is best suited to take care of what. Some hear animals, some hear the dead, some hear more from the living than others. Mam is only one of several characters who can see or hear the dead, and speak with them. Leonie, mostly unable to care for others, is able to see the one ghost Mam wants to see most before her death. Leonie can’t grasp Mam’s lessons about how to read the earth and brew potions from plants, and when she tries to practice Mam’s healing, she manages to make both the children sick. But Leonie can see her dead brother, Given, and nobody else can.

The story moves like myth, in part because it is structured around journey and return, and in part because Ward’s language is stripped of most temporal markers. If the setting is modern, we barely know it. The only brand name we read is Coke, and we see no smartphones. Crystal meth is maybe the only thing, aside from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, that tags the scenario as part of the twenty-first century. Strip out a few sentences and this could be 1937.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is planted in the universalities of the physical—throats, roots, the bodies of snakes, the wings of birds—and the particulars of inheritance. Ward uses Leonie’s family to illustrate lineage, how children become elders, and how elders choose whom they want to teach. From the tangible world, she pulls up truths resident in the mechanics of life. When you’re in trouble, your throat closes up. The goats know what is coming before the people do. If someone is caring for you, the pot on the stove will be full.

When Mam tells Leonie that she, too, may be able to see things others can’t, her explanation fuses the legacies of place and family: “I think it runs in the blood, like silt in river water. Builds up in bends and turns, over sunk trees.” Leonie hears Pop making the same conflation, after she tells him she is taking the kids to meet Michael at Parchman.

“You all right?” Pop asks. He’s looking at me like he looks at one of his animals when something’s wrong with it, the way he looks like when his horse limps and needs to be reshoed, or when one of his chickens starts acting funny and feral. He sees the error, and he’s dead committed to fixing it. Armor the horse’s tender hooves. Isolate the chicken. Wring its neck.

Some of Ward’s sharpest ideas are embedded in physical descriptions. Misty, the other white person in Leonie’s life, works alongside her at a bar, does coke with her, and hatches a plan to subsidize the trip up to Parchman. When we meet Misty, in the process of getting high, Leonie says everything about race while never mentioning it.

She leaned back in her chair, grabbed her hair in a great sheaf, and tossed it over her back. Bishop loves it, she’d said of her boyfriend once. Can’t keep his hands out of it. It was one of the things she did that she was never conscious of, playing with her hair, always unaware of the ease of it. The way it caught all the light. The self-satisfied beauty of it. I hated her hair.

In other places, Ward lets race announce itself in quiet parallels. While in prison for dealing meth, Michael writes Leonie letters. When she asks him to be frank and tell her about all the brutal things that she knows happen inside, he writes to her about other prisoners being beaten. Michael seems to be fine, we gather. When Pop tells Jojo stories about his time at Parchman as a youth, the least violent thing he can describe is the sun. It ramps up from there.

Jesmyn Ward, New York, 2017. Beowulf Sheehan.
Jesmyn Ward, New York, 2017. Beowulf Sheehan.

One locus of violence in the book is Richie, just twelve when River (not yet Pop) meets him at Parchman, the prison that nobody escapes. Richie’s been brought there for stealing to feed his brothers and sisters, so hungry they’ve come down with “red flame.” Before prison, Richie is trying to live, at the most basic level. At Parchman, trying to die becomes Richie’s best option. After his hoe breaks, Richie is whipped so savagely that his back cannot heal. His decision to escape is also an admission that he likely won’t. We only start hearing Richie’s voice halfway through the book, and don’t know his full story until the end.

Leonie is an antihero who refuses to play the plucky survivor or hard-knock sage. Leonie’s selfishness is not just a badge of pride, but a way of coping with all the loving she can neither process nor reciprocate. When Kayla gets violently ill on their trip to Parchman—likely because of a vaguely criminal stopover that Leonie pulls the kids into—the mother can only make things worse. She sees Jojo caring for Kayla, sleeping with her like a mother bear, and she feels nothing like gratitude.

I think Given must have held me like that once, that once we breathed mouth to mouth and inhaled the same air. 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.

Even in bitterness, the family thinks of the natural world as a metric for emotions.

Our two ghosts, Given and Richie, go on the book’s second round-trip, circling the home and helping Mam release her hold on the waking life. In a book so robust and steady, this is possibly the only misalignment. The ghosts are extensions of the people who see them, so granting them total autonomy as characters is tricky. It is easier to care about the ghost Richie, because he ties together Jojo and Pop, just as Given connects Mam and Leonie in what is probably their only solid bond. Investing in these ghosts as full characters is less easy.

The journey of the dead, though, is what the living enable by taking a trip to Parchman. Those on the mortal plane have simply set up a runway for ghosts, and for their way of seeing the living. When Richie finally gets to watch River living with his grandchildren, he feels the same alienation from family as Leonie does.

Riv hugs them even when he’s not in the same room with them, even when he’s not touching them. The boy, Jojo, and the girl, Kayla. Riv holds them close. He sees that they eat in the morning: oatmeal and sausages. He cuts little slivers of butter and slides them into the steaming insides of the biscuits he mixes and kneads and bakes. The butter melts and oozes out of the sides, and I would give anything to taste bread made with such care: I imagine it moist and crumbly.

Ward has a gift for bringing a reader to the tactile world, and then turning the encounter into full immersion. Around this pleasure, she drops small bombs of clarity. And one of the most powerful is something we know is coming without knowing that we care that much. Richie is released from his state of purgatory when he hears a story, when he learns something that everybody will want to know, whether or not they’ve been in prison and whether or not they ever get the chance to find out. Why did I die?

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.