Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Magical realism doesn't always work for me, but it did in this book.  It didn't bother me that some characters could see and hear the dead, others could discern illness by looking at a person and still others could hear what animals were thinking.  Despite all this, at its heart this was a story about real people.

Told from the perspective of different characters in different chapters (mostly Jojo and Leonie, but occasionally one of the dead, Richie) we learn of the difficult life of a poor black family living in coastal Mississippi.  Jojo is thirteen and is trying desperately to prove to his grandfather, who he idolizes, that he is a grown man now.  And in many ways he has had to be a man at an early age - his mother, Leonie, is a drug addict who seems to care about her children, but doesn't do much in the way of nurturing or even providing the necessities of life.  That's been taken care of by Jojo's grandparents, and now his grandmother is dying of cancer.  Jojo's father, Michael, who is white, has been in prison for several years, for drug dealing and his parents will have nothing to do with his black girlfriend or his half black children.  That leaves Jojo pretty much in charge of taking care of his toddler aged sister, Kayla.

When Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children on a road trip to pick him up.  Throughout the road trip we learn more about Leonie's past as well as her father's past, which included a stint in the same prison.  We also see the level of racial discrimination that still pervades life in Mississippi.  And it is on that trip that Jojo encounters his first dead person, Richie, a young boy who his grandfather knew in prison and who has figured prominently in his grandfather's stories. Richie pressures Jojo to question his grandfather about the end of their time together, which Jojo eventually does.  The end of this story provides a lot of insight into the grandfather's character.

The other dead person who plays a prominent role is Leonie's brother, Given, who was shot as a teenager.  Leonie can only see him when she is high which seems to be part of her motivation for taking the drugs.

There is not a great deal more action in the book, it is really more of a character study, but one well worth the read.

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