With his father in prison and his addicted mother just this side of not giving a damn, Jojo’s 13th birthday is a pitiful thing. He misses the red velvet cake his grandmother used to make and how the glow of its candles would make her and his grandfather look young again. That was before she took ill and the chemo “dried her up and hollowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks.” Jojo longs for all those voices that once sang, “Happy Birthday,” back when his family felt whole.
Instead, he hears only the cracking voice of his mother, Leonie, as candle wax drips onto the booties of a baby shower cake repurposed for what should’ve been his big day. Looking at this shell of his kinfolk, Jojo thinks, “There’s no happiness here.”
The same might be said of Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” but that would misread the soul of this staggering novel. Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for her novel “Salvage the Bones” about a black family’s struggles in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina punches into the Gulf of Mexico. She returns to that Deep South territory, unforgiving in so many ways, with a story even more expansive and layered.
A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Ward’s novel hits full stride when Leonie takes her children and a friend and hits the road to pick up her children’s father, Michael, from prison. On a real and metaphorical road of secrets and sorrows, the story shifts narrators — from Jojo to Leonie to Richie, a doomed boy from his grandfather’s fractured past — as they crash into both the ghosts that stalk them, as well as the disquieting ways these characters haunt themselves.
Jojo was born Joseph, but it’s just as well that he’s known by his moniker. He carries the name of his paternal grandfather, a man with such enmity for black people he refuses to acknowledge his biracial grandchildren. Barely a teenager, what remains of Jojo’s childhood is squeezed out by adult responsibilities. To Kayla, his adoring younger sister, he’s the closest thing she has to a parent. He helps his grandfather with the gruesome work of slaughtering animals so that their family can eat. Jojo also tries to make sense of the woman who bore him; they have grown so distant he calls her by her first name instead of Mama.
Leonie isn’t much for mothering. She’s a woman twisted by hardship who numbs her gloom with drugs, a habit that deepened since Michael went away. Yet with every line or pill, instead of foggy solace she is confronted with something else: visions of her murdered brother, Given. He was tall, athletic, and shot dead by a white man, Michael’s cousin, with whom he went hunting. Given saw no danger in this trip, but his father knew better. “They look at you and see difference, son. Don’t matter what you see. It’s about what they do,” Pop advised him. The high school football star is killed for beating that white man in a stupid bet; in Mississippi, to lose to a black man is more than some white men can abide.
His death left Leonie and family mired in grief, and 15 years on, it’s still a sharp ache. It doesn’t help that the killer, of course, cut a deal and received little prison time. The law will punish a white man only so long for a black person’s death.
Race and racism are constant threads in Ward’s novels, but not in predictable ways. Unlike cities where different groups uneasily co-exist without interacting, the rural poor, regardless of race, are entangled in each other’s lives. They’re friends; they fight; and they have relationships and children. They are bound by having to make do with less and find commonality and company with each other. Until they don’t.
Leonie understand this. Misty, a white woman and her drug buddy, is also in an interracial relationship with a man who like Leonie’s Michael is in prison. Sometimes they share the ride on visiting days, but mostly they get high in the pink cottage Misty got from MEMA afterKatrina.
Still, Leonie never forgets the fundamental difference between herself and Misty, or the resentment she feels. “I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.” Misty has her blues all right, but they’ll never be like Leonie’s as a poor black woman. She knows her life will never be easy or fair.
“Growing up out here in the country taught me things,” Leonie says. “Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants. Once a year or so, I see it in Pop, how he got leaner and leaner with age, the tendons in him standing out, harder and more rigid every year. His Indian cheekbones severe. But since Mama got sick, I learned pain can do that too. Can eat a person until there’s nothing left but bone and skin and thin a layer of blood left.”
In “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” these lives are pockmarked by bad luck and bad choices, yet Ward presents them without judgment. Neither does she sift for some phony nobility, as though the recompense for being poor is to be imbued with amazing grace. Perhaps these are not characters to be loved, but they earn respect. Either by strength or stubbornness, they persist though the tumult of blood ties, the scourge of prejudice, and the long grind of disappointment, always searching for a safe way back home.
SING, UNBURIED, SING
By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 289 pp., $26Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com.