It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed. And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that. But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward: “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging. I am ever grateful for every one of you. I love you all.”
I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.
Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction. (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)
But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book. Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.
At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release. Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. There are ghosts along the way. Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before. Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there. The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.
The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:
“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”
Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi. There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.
It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism. Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions. Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it. There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage. There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things. But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.
On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse. The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband. Even in the violence there is intimacy. And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.
This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it. When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:
“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”
But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live. It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.