I do what I can to fill out my reading categories using books I already have, whether they’re on Kindle or physically on the bookshelves. But there’s always a few categories that don’t readily lend themselves to that approach. PopSugar’s call-out to ghost stories this year is definitely one of those outlier categories, so I did what I usually do to make a selection: crawl the challenge discussion boards on Goodreads to get some ideas.
Between the good reviews (both on the boards and in the press), the National Book Award, and the resonance with my ongoing desire to keep reading more books by African-American authors, this seemed a book well worth the choosing.
And indeed it was.
The novel centers on 13-year-old Jojo, who lives in the fictional-but-entirely-truthful rural town of Bois Sauvage, MI. He lives in a multi-generational household, but is primarily being raised by his grandfather, Pop, while caring for his younger sister, Kayla. His grandmother is bedridden, lingering in the final stages of terminal cancer, and his mother Leonie is a ghostly presence in the household: gone for days at a time on another drug bender, indifferent to and/or incapable of meeting her children’s needs even when she’s there.
When Leonie receives a call that Jojo and Kayla’s white father, Michael, is about to be released from Parchman Farm (the real nickname for the Mississippi State Penitentiary), she decides to take a road trip to pick Michael up and reunite the family. It’s clear that this gesture is meant to create a statement that they are a united family, against the many familial and societal forces against them: Michael’s father once participated in a cover-up around the shooting death of Leonie’s older brother, Given, and has refused to acknowledge Michael and Leonie’s relationship or either of the children born within it.
As one might expect, the cracks and seams within this web of relationships fray and spark throughout the entire journey. Kayla gets sick, and rejects her mother to turn to Jojo for care and comfort. Leonie and the white friend, Misty, she brought along on the trip, clumsily try to hide the fact that, in addition to its primary purpose, they are using the opportunity of this trip to purchase some more meth. On the return trip, a police officer pulls over the car, and treats Jojo with the kind of swiftly escalating brutality that is both appallingly monstrous and sickeningly commonplace.
Ward’s narration makes the details of place and person and event powerfully specific while also rooting them in the soil of America and Mississippi’s long history of racism and white supremacy–from lynching to mass incarceration to economic disparity. This is a family that is haunted by the past, both figuratively and literally. Leonie’s sees her brother’s ghost whenever she’s high, and the ghost of a young boy who knew Pop during his time at Parchman in the 1940’s or 50’s folds himself into the car at Jojo’s feet for the return trip to Bois Sauvage.
Although the book’s ghosts are a powerful indication of the historical weight of the individual challenges and situations Jojo and his family navigate, the ghosts in this book also kept me from giving the novel a five-star review.* An interview with Ward in the back of the book suggests that she started out thinking Given-not-Given was mostly a drug hallucination for Leonie, but that focus shifted as the novel took its shape. Unfortunately, I think some of that direction-shift created some lingering elements that make the hauntings a bit like Ward was trying to have it both ways, narratologically speaking.
It’s clear throughout the book how pretty much everyone in Jojo’s family has some flavor of mystical gift, and that Leonie is the one family member who has for the most part rejected her gift–unwilling or unable to nurture it in much the same way she is unwilling or unable to nurture her children. This repression of her mysticism is, presumably, why Given’s ghost can only break through when Leonie is high. Since that is the case, why in earth and heaven wouldn’t Given try to communicate with the family members who could actually hear him? I mean, Richie picks up on Jojo’s presence quickly enough to be able to drag himself out of the ground of decades’-worth of death and temporal dislocation and hitchhike home from a few-hours-long trip to Parchman. Given has had 13 years of Jojo’s childhood (thus far) to make contact. So why hasn’t he? Seriously: what gives?
This is, though, a complaint more of the nit-picking variety than anything else. Ward’s story is powerful and her craft is masterful, from her interweaving of different narrative voice and perspectives to the searing poetry of her descriptive passages.
It deserved that National Book Award, and it deserves to be read even more widely than has already occurred.
* I don’t usually talk about stars, but Goodreads always asks for a 1-to-5-star rating when you mark a book finished, so I expect every now and again the topic will come up here.
Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.