Critical Assessment

“In Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi, one must grow inured to the rituals of killing and butchering animals for sustenance. Exhausted women beat their children in public. Men of good character do unspeakable things out of necessity, and the bad men do far worse. And there, just as in the real world, caring about people like Jojo and Leonie is not a matter of looking past these grim possibilities, but rather consenting to step into them and be affected.

Such feats of empathy are difficult, all too often impossible to muster in real life. But they feel genuinely inevitable when offered by a writer of such lyric imagination as Ward. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.”

Tracy K. Smith, “In ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ a Haunted Road Trip to Prison,” The New York Times, September 22, 2017.

First Excerpt

“I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the unmarked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round, full stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sister’s. He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was 13, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter. I knew that hunger could hurt, could scoop me hollow as a gourd, and that seeing my siblings starving could hollow out a different part of me, too. Could make my heart ricochet through my chest desperately. I watch Jojo and Kayla’s sprawled sleep and wonder if I ever slept like that when I was young. I wonder if Riv ever looked at me and saw a wild, naive thing in the cot next to him. I wonder if he felt pity. Or if there was more love. Jojo snores to a snort and stops, and I feel something in my chest, where my heart would be if I were still alive, soften toward him.”

Second Excerpt

“I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?”