Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones has been on my radar since its publication over a decade ago, but somehow this one, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was the first of her novels that I bought, and thus it has been on my actual (physical) TBR pile for more than long enough to qualify for this year’s TBR Pile Challenge.
What I didn’t know about either of these novels is that they both won the National Book Award (2011 and 2017, respectively), and have cemented her place among the contemporary American literary masters. My reading of Sing, Unburied, Sing, for what its worth, confirms this. I’ve been skeptical of this trend toward magical realism in contemporary Black American fiction, especially when historical figures are involved. Ward’s approach, though, is delicate on the magical part, and it deals with everyday persons rather than reimagining the lives of remarkable people from our literal history.
Although I’ve found myself less and less interested in folk literature or magical realism that uses the supernatural as deux ex machina, I appreciate where Ward is coming from in crafting her tale the way she does. Much of the supernatural, which is a kind of side element anyway, is metaphor, and I find this much more interesting and effective, personally, when I’m not reading fantasy intentionally.
Ward’s characters, living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are realistic in formidable ways. Present here is tradition and intergenerational folk wisdom, but this is put into direct conflict with modern traditions and failings. The tension between embracing and curating generations of family and community knowledge with the onslaught of contemporary realities, including police violence, racist systems, and drug addiction, is a rubber band stretched to snapping.
This tension is expressed through the competing narratives of Jojo, an interracial teenager coming into his manhood, including the powers and challenges this brings, and his mother, Leonie, a woman who lost her brother tragically to racial violence, who married a white man despite that, and who has been unable to reconcile any of it. This lack is most evident in her inability to see and hear beyond the veil—beyond the senses’ true abilities—the way that her dying mother can, and the way that Jojo can, too.
A subplot whose climax is revealed only at the very end exists in the mystery of a relationship that formed between Jojo’s grandfather and a boy, Richie, both of whom were incarcerated together many years before Jojo’s story takes place. All of these characters and relationships are indicative of larger concerns while being at the same time very real and affecting to the people carrying the weight of America’s shames on their shoulders. It’s heartbreaking to see just how personal these grand errors can become, and how much damage they can do.
The question, in the end, seems to be whether we as persons and as a people can become something better than our histories. Ward’s answer is found in Kayla, Jojo’s younger sister who clings to him throughout, who rejects their mother, and whose final command, “Go home,” seems not so much an entreaty to another character in the end, but a command for us all.
“Home, they say. Home.”