Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a work of lyrical beauty on a backdrop of persistent ugliness and cruelty, a masterpiece in storytelling set in a world of narratives forgotten or ignored, a page-turning delight built atop a visceral and aching pain. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward gifts us with the story of a 13 year-old named Joseph whose White father Michael is in Mississippi’s maximum security prison and whose Black mother Leonie is gone and high more than she isn’t. Joseph lives with his Black grandparents — two hardened but caring strongholds of wisdom and love, both carrying a lifetime of sorrow but only one carrying cancer — and his 3 year-old sister Kayla, who seemingly adores her big brother more than anything or anyone else in the world. A kind of mystic spiritualism hangs over Ward’s world and characters, so when a sudden road trip drags Leonie, Joseph, and Kayla from their coastal home deep into the heart of Mississippi, the present and all its struggles never seem far from the brutal past that created them.

The rural South is not a kind place in Sing, Unburied, Sing, and the descriptions of its natural beauty are too often marred by the countless Black men and women whose lives ended violently on its soil. As a reader, you experience this world primarily though the eyes of Joseph, who knows the hardship of his own life but has not entirely lost his innocence or, as is the case for his grandfather Pop, had it taken away from him. Ward expertly weaves rich family history and flashbacks into the present narrative so that it seems multiple stories are always unfolding together, heightening our ability to see the connections between them. These exact sort of connections are pregnant with one of Sing, Unburied, Sing’s primary themes: that we cannot separate the modern South and its deep, infected scars from the history that shows us how those wounds were inflicted, and that this history has roots not in big movements and national news, but in every sullen lynching tree and unjust court ruling.

Take, for example, the following passage that showcases Ward’s ability to tie a conversation about the past together with the current feelings of the narrator, who has just had his first encounter with police brutality (feel free to skip this if you wish to avoid even minor spoilers).

“My name?” he says.

Richie, I mouth.

He looks like he wants to smile but doesn’t.

“He told you about me?”

I nod.

“He tell you how he knew me? That we were in Parchman together?”

I huff and nod again.

“They don’t send them there as young as you no more.”

My wrists won’t stop hurting.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

It’s like the cuffs cut all the way down to the bone.

“It’s like a snake that sheds its skin. The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always look the same.”

Like my marrow could carry a bruise.

[…] I have to look away from the wrong of the boy folded onto the floor of the car, so I stare out the window at the tall trees flashing past and think about the gun. Even though it reminded me of so much cold, I think it would have been hot to touch. So hot it would have burned my fingerprints off.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, pages 171–172.

Enough cannot be said about Ward’s ability to craft prose that reads like grand poetry and easy conversation all at once. Her descriptions are delightful and vivid: every texture is tangible, every climate palpable, every smell immediately recognizable. Only when it comes to the occasional cultural subtlety or clever trick does Ward seem to slow down, as if to gently stoop to our understanding and check that we’re keeping up. Take, for example, this gem (no spoilers, so read freely):

There are people: tiny and distinct. They fly and walk and float and run. They are alone. They are together. They wander the summits. They swim in the rivers and sea. They walk hand in hand in the parks, in the squares, disappear into the buildings. They are never silent. Ever present is their singing: they don’t move their mouths and yet it comes from them. Crooning in the yellow light. It comes from the black earth and the trees and the ever-lit sky. It comes from the water. It is the most beautiful song I have ever heard, but I can’t understand a word.

I am gasping when the vision passes. The dark underbelly […] looms before me: creaking then silent. I look to my right and see a flash of the water, the rivers, the wilderness, the cities, the people. Then darkness. I look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle.

Absence. Isolation. I keen.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, page 241.

The questions that this novel leaves about what hope and healing look like in the rural South are pertinent ones, and their delivery is somehow both searing and soothing, holding our feet to the fire while knowing it is what we need most. I am very thankful to have read my first Ward novel, and hope to have caught my breath by the time she releases another.



Book (Fiction)
Release Date
September 5, 2017
Joshua J. Daymude
Joshua J. Daymude
Assistant Professor, SCAI & CBSS

I am a Christian and assistant professor in computer science studying collective emergent behavior and programmable matter through the lens of distributed computing, stochastic processes, and bio-inspired algorithms. I also love gaming and playing music.