Everyone has a certain book that they
were forced to read read as a student that they *secretly* loved (but couldn’t actually admit it because, you know, we have reputations to uphold). For me, there were three that truly stuck with me: Lord of the Flies, The Poisonwood Bible, and As I Lay Dying. While I grew up reading (shout out to my mom for making sure I consistently had the most Accelerated Reader points…just look at me now, still reading absurd amounts), these were the first books that really challenged me, pushed me to think, showed me that reading can transport you into a new world. For obvious reasons, when I saw Sing, Unburied, Sing , one of September’s BOTM, was even mentioned alongside Faulkner’s epic journey, I snatched it up without a second thought.
If you’re sipping along at home, this week I’m going with a Bold Rock Cider IPA to celebrate the fact that it actually feels like fall, AKA apple cider season! Can’t find this cidery? Any hard cider will do!
Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and (occasionally) their drug-addicted mother Leonie. Their father Michael is in prison, Mam is dying from cancer, Pop is trying to teach Jojo how to be a man, and every time that Leonie gets high, she sees the ghost of her brother Given. When Michael is released from prison, Leonie packs up Jojo and Kayla, enlists the company of a friend, and sets out to pick up her boyfriend. Along the way, Leonie struggles with the fact that her children seem to rely on each other and not on her, she turns to drugs
yet again, and Jojo tries to care for a sick Kayla.
Put simply, this novel was so difficult to read, and not because it wasn’t enjoyable–on the contrary, it was such a gripping story. The experiences that our protagonist had to go through were agonizing, heart wrenching, just plain unfair to anyone, let alone a child. My heart continuously broke for Jojo and Kayla, who fortunately had each other to lean on as their family fell apart. Their relationship was more than that of a typical brother and sister. They brought out the best in each other: Jojo was Kayla’s protector, and Kayla gave Jojo the unconditional love that he so desperately needed.
This story hit very close to home for me because I grew up in a small town where the effects of the drug epidemic is evident. Fortunately, I never personally experienced Jojo and Kayla’s reality, but I can still see the faces of elementary-age children that I mentored as a high school student that were neglected and abandoned by parents that chose to seek their next high instead of cherishing their own flesh and blood. It’s absolutely devastating to families, and Ward beautifully painted the tragic portrait of their lives.
A few things I could have done without: the very detailed description of Jojo and Pop slaughtering and gutting a goat (side note: if you’re squeamish, start the book on page 7… all you’re missing is a lot of carnage and a little description of how Pop is killing a goat to cook for Jojo’s 13th birthday and wants to teach him how to become a man) and the ghosts. Not to give too much away, but Leonie’s visions of her dead brother felt powerful…the others did not. While we all live with ghosts from our past, I think this story would have benefited from metaphorical ones, not literal.
I really, really wanted to give this 5 stars, but I felt as though the ghosts trivialized such an amazing story (as I’ve mentioned before, magical realism isn’t really my glass of Merlot) so I’m giving it 4 stars.
Have you read this? Let me know in the comments!