This story by Jesmyn Ward should be a powerful novel. It certainly has powerful themes and deals with elemental human truths: life, death, family, love, and violence.
The story brings us to the bayous of the south, to prison farms, and into the ramshackle lives of two children living with a wreck of a mother, a dying grandmother, and a doting but haunted grandfather. All of them have secrets and keep the truth from each other and from themselves, making their lives more complicated than necessary.
The author uses beautiful, though often confusing, imagery. She overuses dense, rambling similes to the point of distraction. For example, the dying grandmother’s chest is described as a barbecue pit with a burning grill. Yet, the reader dare not skip over long paragraphs of description lest an important verb or subject be missed.
I disliked most of the characters. Jojo, the stalwart young boy, is my favorite. He lives in a whirlwind of bad-parenting, secrets, and heavy responsibility, yet he clings to his family and his understanding of the right things to do. Jojo’s grandfather set a good example for the boy, but his hands were tied by the rights of the boy’s mother and secrets from his past.
Leoni, the boy’s mother, has no redeeming characteristics. Her own loving father describes her as selfish and mean. She makes bad choices at every turn, though she seems to have no reason to develop into a bad parent and person. Her up-bringing was good, yet she addles her brain with drugs, beats her children, and chooses a weak loser of a man as a partner. She seems to be the embodiment of an angry generation with no base of positive values to lean on.
Even the little girl, Kayla, was an unlikable character. The toddler clings to and climbs all over her brother whining and vomiting throughout the story. In the end, however, she gives a hint to the hope and strength she might bring to the shattered family.
The author’s main point seems to be that people are the result of the culture that spawned them, that violence is inherited, that secrets follow families like ghosts through the generations. The main characters are Black. Their lives have been formed in a history of injustice and violence. The older generation tries to hang on to memories that could maintain their self-respect and independence, but the evils of white oppression, violence, and drugs beat it out of them. The younger generations have almost no hope, but for a thin string tied to the old ways––hard work, family values, and a belief in something larger than themselves.
The white people in the story are also stuck in their generational and cultural traps of poverty, violence, and hate. Michael, Leoni’s lover, has a shred of decency, but lacks the strength to fight against his culture, his family’s past, and the drugs he and Leoni share.
Overall the story is depressing and hopeless, yet it is worth reading to generate discussions about how race relations have evolved. Perhaps understanding can ensue and kindness follow.