Jesmyn Ward has been publishing regularly ever since winning the 2011 National Book Award — Men We Reaped in 2013 and an anthology of edited works, The Fire This Time, in 2016 — but Sing, Unburied, Sing is her first novel since Salvage the Bones. As with her previous works, Ward again returns to Mississippi to follow a black family that’s on the brink of major changes.
Told mostly in chronological order through the eyes of rotating narrators, the story follows Jojo, a boy on the cusp of leaving childhood. He lives with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, and is often his baby sister’s main caregiver and protector. Sometimes his mother, Leonie, shows up, but she struggles with meth addiction and lacks mothering instincts at best and is negligent at worst. Jojo loves his grandparents, and Pop is the steadiest father figure he has ever had. Mam, meanwhile, seems to be in her final days of battling cancer; she stays upstairs, consumed by pain.
I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”
In 1963, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book about race in America. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward soberly reflects in her introduction, “It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
In The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Claudia Rankine, and Isabel Wilkerson pick up where Baldwin’s book left off. Most of the essays look to the past, several consider the present, and a couple look to the future. Considering we’re living in a period where it’s still considered radical to insist that black lives matter, the publication of this collection couldn’t be more timely.
Men We Reaped begins with this epigraph by Harriet Tubman:
“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. From 2000-2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were dear to her. It started with the tragic death of her brother, then grew more and more overwhelming as death kept coming for friends she grew up with in rural Mississippi. And as she notes in her first chapter, it’s nothing new. A brief survey of her family history reveals that several of her male Southern ancestors’ lives were cut short in violent ways, leaving the women in the family reeling and scraping by.
As Ward struggles to make sense of it all, she juggles a few different histories. Every other chapter in the book is about her own family’s story. With them, she starts in the past and moves her way forward in time, talking about growing up poor in the rural South, her parents’ doomed marriage, and her mother’s struggle raise four children. She’s frank about her depression and her feelings of inadequacy; she was a gifted child but was poor and often the only black person in an all-white, wealthy school where she experienced blatant racism.
I received a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Though I knew it was “about Katrina” and had been nominated for a 2011 National Book Award (which it subsequently won), I jumped into this story pretty blindly. That white dog on the cover? Yeah…she’s there for a reason.
Enter: unsuspecting moi, a former ASPCA employee/animal-loving vegetarian.
Salvage the Bones is not for the faint of heart. It follows the story of a family struggling to keep it together in an impoverished area of the Mississippi coast. Esch, the main character, is a fourteen-year-old girl who has just found out that she’s pregnant. She’s fiercely intelligent with a keen interest in Greek mythology, but she spends most of her time hanging out with her brothers.
The oldest brother is Skeetah, whose sole focus is on taking care of his prized white pit bull, China. China’s one of the top fighting dogs in the area, and though she’s loyal to Skeetah, she shows aggression towards everyone else, including her own newborn puppies. The next brother is Randall, a talented athlete. The baby of the family is Junior, now seven years old. Their mother died giving birth to him, and their father is an alcoholic who’s obsessed with preparing for hurricane season.
The family appears hard and impervious to all of the attacks the world throws its way, but Ward excels at portraying everyone’s fragility. So much of this book was devastating: children left to mostly fend for themselves and raise each other, the poverty they experience, Esch’s promiscuity (even when sex isn’t something she necessarily desires), their father’s inability to fight his own demons. And, for me, all references to dog fighting (which was intense at times). It’s a book that’s unrelentingly raw and brutal. Hurricane Katrina eventually arrived with the full force of her fury, yes, but the devastation started long before then.