Saturday, September 22, 2018

Selected works by Jesmyn Ward

It’s always exciting when I find an author whose writing makes me want to burn through his or her bibliography like a dangerous fever. I grabbed the three books I could lay my hands on at the library, and dove head first into Sing, Unburied, Sing, I followed with Salvage the Bones, and concluded with The Men We Reaped. Each story is powerful and compelling, but as a body of work, they are a vivid testimony of growing up Black and poor in the rural south.
Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, and a visceral snap shot of a family, which itself is a microcosm of the greater systemic disenfranchisement of Blacks in the book’s fictitious town of Bois Sauvage. Told over twelve days in rural Mississippi, and climaxing as Hurricane Katrina moves inland, Esch’s story will break your heart. Fourteen year-old Esch “grew up” (as  a child who has only ever known deprivation and struggle can) putting the needs of her brothers first: Randall (a serious basketball star, already proving to be a far better father to his little brother Junior, than their dad ever has been), Skeetah (who, while trying to “make them know,” ends up finding the love of his life…of a kind), and their baby brother Junior (a sweet boy, the last boy, the birthing of whom killed their mother). Junior, whose clinginess binds them, but also reminds them of how fierce and tenuous they all feel without their mother. Within this backdrop, while a hurricane threatens on the horizon, Esch struggles with a secret that scares her more than calamity.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, we meet a thirteen-year-old boy named Jojo, a young boy growing up in a house/family that is haunted by racism, the poison of it spreading to each member of the family like a cancer, body, mind, and soul. Jojo is at that age where he is dreaming about being a man. And those dreams take on the straight lines of Pap, Junior’s grandpa. Junior, his baby sister Kayla, and their mom Leonie all live with Pap and Mam. When Leonie decides to take Jojo and Kayla on a three day odyssey to pick up her man Michael from prison.(Michael is, to a much lesser degree, their father. But Jojo learned early what baby Kayla is just now feeling: Michael has eyes and ears only for Leoni.) Without Pap’s imperious presence on the trip, Jojo feels unmoored, and worries that Leoni can’t keep them safe. Running both parallel and through Jojo’s experiences, are Richie’s. But the same eye Jojo turned so sweetly upon Kayla, sweaty and hot on a too-long car ride back from the prison, becomes baleful when it lands upon Richie, slumped impossibly on the floorboard beside him.  Well, maybe it’s not so impossible if you understand that Richie is a ghost that roams forward and back in time, tethered to a plantation that had many a PR facelift during its time. The owners may change in name, but never in deed, and those fields may now be growing Parchment Penitentiary cotton instead of that old slavery cotton, but it’s the same damn field. And the Black men and boys, rounded up for charges ranging from petty to imagined, as prisoners, may now be legally yoked to the field once again. The master/jailer’s face may change, but the same enslavement flows through and around time like a snake eating itself.

I finished my holiday reading with The Men We Reap. This volume of Jesmyn Ward’s memoirs tracks the fatal arcs of five boys’ lives. Stars that dropped right out of her family’s sky. Jesmyn begins her telling with the freshest loss, family friend, Demon Cook. Cook was the boy from an unbroken family, a dedicated provider and conscientious neighbor, who was murdered on his front lawn. A crime still unsolved. He was preceded in death by Charles Joseph Martin, a lithe acrobatic marvel and chivalrous and beloved cousin. Death came calling next for Ronald Way Lizana, a dazzling and charming friend; and lastly, Jesmyn discusses the loss of her little brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. Alternating with each heartbreaking memorial, are autobiographical chapters chronicling the history of Jesmyn and her family. She paints a bleak picture of what a young boy can expect when he’s young, Black, and poor in rural America. She describes in haunting detail what it looked like when the light dimmed in the eyes of a brother, a friend, or a loved one as they realized, with their eyes wide open, that the American Dream isn’t an option for every sleeper.

Reviews by Jennifer Wilson

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