Book Review – Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

I am… going to potentially have some trouble really putting this book into words. I finished it YESTERDAY but I knew that if I waited to review it, it would lose some of its power for me. And it was incredibly powerful, especially in light of the death of beloved actor Chadwick Boseman, whose turn as Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall were groundbreaking and nuanced and just POWERFUL. Rest in power, King, and Wakanda forever. I’ll talk more about that later.

I just. I guess I have to just start talking about it, huh?

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jojo turns 13 and finds out his father is getting released from prison. His mother, Leonie, is neglectful, a drug addict and incredibly self-centered woman, and he and his little sister, Kayla, live with their mother’s parents, Pop and Mam. Leonie also technically lives there, but she’s gone so often that Jojo doesn’t even call her Mom or Mama – he calls her Leonie. Leonie’s family is poor and black, living in southern Mississippi, near the gulf coast, and Jojo’s father, Michael, is white and from the same small town. And he’s getting released from Parchman several days later. Leonie, her friend from work, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla load up in her old car and make the road trip up north to the prison, and not a thing goes right the entire day.

To add a layer to all of this, Mam and Pop have their own stories to tell. Mam was a healer, using plant-based remedies to help the poor town all throughout her life. But she couldn’t do anything about her own cancer, unfortunately, and at the time the book takes place, she’s bedridden and in terrible pain, dying from the disease. And Pop was a prisoner at Parchman in his own youth, spending several years there before returning to the same small town and falling in love with Mam. And the final, grief-ridden layer to all of this is Given. Given was Leonie’s older brother, lynched by a white classmate while out in the woods hunting. It was covered up by Big Joseph, the town Sheriff (I think? I can’t remember for sure), who stated it was just a hunting accident. And Big Joseph is Michael’s father, who has yet to acknowledge his own grandchildren and doesn’t allow Leonie and the kids into his home.

And this isn’t even mentioning the ghosts. Because this is also a ghost story somehow, in a way that shouldn’t make sense but does.

3 Things I Loved

  1. The writing. Jesmyn Ward deserves her two National Book Awards, god damn. She writes in a way that makes you fall into the words, makes you hold your breath and rocks you to sleep, even in the middle of crippling grief, even when worlds are falling apart in the book. I sometimes dreaded picking this book up, but I kept going because the writing was just so good, and the story is so powerful, and it just needed to be told.
  2. Jojo and Kayla’s relationship. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like this before. Kayla is only two, a toddler, so she can’t form complete sentences yet. But it’s so clear from the words she does say, from her actions, that she prefers Jojo to her own mother, that he comforts her in a way her mother never has. And Jojo literally shields Kayla with his body on more than one occasion, protecting her in every way he can. It’s beautiful.
  3. Pop. There’s something about Pop in this story. His name is actually River, as we learn throughout the story, but the Pop that Jojo talks about, and the Pop that Leonie talks about, they all describe this indomitable spirit, this pillar of surety and strength in the family. He’s human, and he’s flawed, and he has his scars. But he’s the father figure that Jojo and Kayla count on.

Dislikes/Problematic Content

This is incredibly well-written, tackling many, many issues in a nuanced and subtle way. Some content warnings for this book: overt racism, lynching, drug use, abuse, and overdose, terrible/abusive/neglectful parenting, discussion of prison abuse, terrible poverty, and death by cancer. I probably even missed some things. All of these are important to the story, but they definitely have the potential to trigger people.

My only real dislike is super essential to the bones of the story. Leonie. I fucking HATE Leonie. She’s selfish, self-centered, neglectful, and narcissistic. She’s probably one of the worst mothers I’ve read about on the page. But I think we’re supposed to hate her in a lot of ways. I don’t hate her for her drug use, I want to make that very clear. Addiction is a disease. But the rest of her personality is just… she’s the WORST. But like I said, I think it’s part of the bones of the story that we hate Leonie. It makes the rest of the story make sense.

And, as promised, I wanted to touch on the cancer. I don’t know the exact statistics, although I’ve read them many times. But the black population is especially vulnerable to cancer, and cancer kills them more often than it kills people in any other race. This story is no different. Slight spoiler, but we watch Mam die after cancer consumes her entire body and being, and it’s heart-wrenching. Which also circles back to Chadwick Boseman, who was only 43 when he died of colon cancer at the end of last week. FORTY THREE. And he’d been fighting for four years! It all just goes to show that you never know what someone else is going through. But, having lost someone at a very young age to aggressive cancer, get screened, get tested, go to the doctor regularly, do whatever you need to do. Fuck cancer, man.


A reminder of the rating scale:

  • Red = DNF, I hated everything
  • Orange = Ugh, no thank you
  • Yellow = I mean, I’ve read worse, but there were problems
  • Green = This was good! 
  • Blue = Oh my gosh, I loved this book!
  • Purple = This is the unicorn of books and I will be rereading it until the binding falls apart and EVERYONE should be reading it!

How do I even rate this book? It ripped me apart in a lot of ways. It wasn’t happy, and it didn’t have a happy ending. But it was beautiful in its grime, in its darkness. I’m giving Sing, Unburied, Sing a GREEN rating because I have a lot of complicated feelings about it and Leonie is the absolute worst.

Happy reading (and read something happier when you’re done with this one)!

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