This is a book you need to digest for a while after you read it. It has some elements of magical realism that may or may not be metaphorical, and the story it tells is so complexly layered that it is sometimes hard to decipher. But it is worth the journey.
The story takes place on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where the bloody ghosts of its Jim Crow racist past are never hidden far below the surface.
Leonie is a young African-American drug-addicted mother with two children, Jojo (age 13) and his sister Kayla (3). Leonie mostly leaves the kids in the care of her own parents, Mam and Pop. Mam is dying of cancer, so Pop and Jojo carry most of the load of running the house and raising Kayla. The story is narrated in turn from multiple perspectives.
Parchman State Penitentiary is a character in this story also. Pop was sent there for five years when he was fifteen, and the trauma he experienced there has haunted him ever since. Leonie’s white boyfriend Michael (who is also the father of her two children) is in Parchman as the story begins, but is about to be released.
[In real life, Parchman had been notorious for many years for being run like a slave plantation, with inmates suffering murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses. In 1972, four Parchman inmates brought a suit against the prison superintendent in federal district court alleging their civil rights under the United States Constitution were being violated by the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. The federal judge found for the plaintiffs, and reforms were subsequently instituted. But reports of abuses and corruption have continued to plague the prison, albeit across the color line now. As Michael wrote to Leonie: “This ain’t no place for no man. Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead.”]
Leonie insists the kids ride with her to Parchman to pick up their father. She also brings along her white friend Misty, a fellow drug-addict who also has a boyfriend in Parchman. (Misty’s boyfriend is black, and “this loving across color lines was one of the reasons we became friends so quickly.”) Misty is Leonie’s only friend.
When Leonie is high, she sees her dead older brother Given, who was killed fifteen years ago by Michael’s racist cousin. In fact, Michael’s whole family consists of rabid racists, and his parents won’t even acknowledge their half-black grandchildren.
Leonie can only see the dead with drugs, but Jojo and Kayla have the “gift” of hearing voices and seeing the dead at any time. Jojo is a bit worried that when Mam dies he will see her as a ghost. She tells Jojo she thinks not; rather, she will be “on the other side of the door. With everybody else that’s gone before.”
But Jojo has reason to worry about being surrounded by ghosts; he is now being followed around by a ghost named Richie, who came back with them from Parchman. Richie was only 12 when he was in prison there, at the same time that Pop (whose name is River) was there. Pop has told Jojo stories about Richie, but never about what happened to him and how he died. Richie asks Jojo to find out from River, because River can’t hear him like Jojo can. Richie explains he needs to know how he died; he thinks if he does, he will hear the song that will free him from this half-way existence and let him move on to the afterlife. [Is the song one of love for those who died? A promise of justice or of change in the South? It’s unclear to me.]
And Richie is not alone in his situation. “‘There’s so many,’ Richie says. . . ‘So many of us..’ ‘Stuck. So many crying loose. Lost.’” The stuck ones are those that suffered unjustly and died violently; those who were lynched, tortured, murdered – they are all waiting, in sorrow and pain, to hear the song to send them on.
Whether Jojo can help him find the song drives the narrative, as do the ties of family and love that can see us through the worst of times.
Evaluation: Even though some of the characters act badly, most of them elicit sympathy. Others, like Michael’s extended family, are horrific, but they are not portrayed unrealistically; unfortunately, virulent racism like theirs still exists.
This story is haunting in two senses. One is its inclusion of ghosts, although this is definitely not a “paranormal” story; they can be seen as narrative devices, and/or as metaphors. The other is that the story and characters and what they endured will stay in your mind long after you finish reading.
This book raises some thorny issues that would make it an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by Scribner, 2017