Sing, Unburied, Sing|Jesmyn Ward


*Finalist for the Kirkus Prize
*Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal

*Finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize
*Publishers Weekly Top 10 of 2017
*Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a "tour de force" (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.

In Jesmyn Ward's first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi's past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power--and limitations--of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn't lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won't acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister's lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children's father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can't put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children's father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward's distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.


  • ISBN-13: 9781501126062
  • ISBN-10: 1501126067
  • Publisher: Scribner Book Company
  • Publish Date: September 2017
  • Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Page Count: 304

American odyssey

From the opening pages of Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s (Salvage the Bones) new novel, you know you’re in for a unique experience among the pecan trees and dusty roads of rural Mississippi. This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South.

Ward shifts perspective among three characters: 13-year-old mixed-race boy Jojo, who lives with his mother and toddler sister, Kayla, in the home of his black grandparents, Mam and Pop; Leonie, Jojo’s black mother, who struggles with drug addiction and sees visions of her murdered brother; and Richie, a young boy who died decades earlier and whom 15-year-old Pop knew when they were at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Jojo’s white father, Michael, the son of a man who abhors Leonie because she’s the black woman “his son had babies with,” has been in Parchman for many years. When Leonie learns of Michael’s release, she, Jojo and Kayla drive across Mississippi to pick him up. But the trip, which includes unexpected illnesses and a stop for drugs that Leonie wants to sell, is more eventful than the family had anticipated.

Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into “scaly birds” whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout, as when Jojo says that, as Michael hugs him after a fight with Leonie, “something in his face was pulled tight, wrong, like underneath his skin he was crisscrossed with tape.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Jesmyn Ward for Sing, Unburied, Sing.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.