Throughout Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, we see how the characters connect, or disconnect, from each other. The novel focuses in on relationships and what one needs for such connections to thrive in positive ways. Each of the story’s relationships hones in on what it means to genuinely care for someone—it also explores both healthy and unhealthy forms of caregiving.
One way we see caregiving in the novel is through the family’s healing traditions and natural remedies, most notably passed down through Jojo’s grandmother and Leonie's mother, Mam.
In the words of Leonie: "Mama always told me that if I look carefully enough, I can find what I need in the world… she’d point out plants before digging them up or stripping their leaves and telling me how they could heal or hurt." (Ward 102).
Leonie recalls her mother’s teachings about herbal remedies when trying to find milkweed to help ease Kayla’s sickness. She laments about how she doesn’t remember everything Mam shared with her, and even reflects on the older woman’s cancer—frustrated with how the world could not give enough to cure the terminal illness that affects her naturally caring mother.
But, in the eyes of Jojo, it’s also important to understand the natural world before using it to heal—one cannot just use it so easily. Jojo trusts Mam and her healing abilities because she takes the time to understand the earth and what it can provide.
But, when Leonie concocts something to help Kayla, Jojo doesn’t want his little sister to drink it: "[Leonie] ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don’t know" (Ward 107).
Ward explores the concept of remedies vs. poisons; she suggests that the two can be incredibly difficult to distinguish from one another. For example, Leonie uses drugs because she believes she needs them, craving how her substance abuse helps her forget and releases her from difficult realities. Even the love she shares with Michael, an emotion that suggests joy, completely consumes her. She grasps to the fleeting moments of salvation she finds in drugs and Michael, but both negatively impact her actions and relationships. For Leonie, drugs and her romance with Michael are poisons disguised as remedies. Her ability to care for others is inhibited by these two aspects of her life. In Jojo’s eyes, the maternal role does not come to her naturally—he is unable to trust her caregiving methods.
Natural healing and herbal remedies play a powerful role throughout Ward’s story, driving the way characters bond, react, and care for each other.
This One Book season includes programs that explore natural healing and remedies, from Amulets Workshops to Urban Medicine Cabinets. These programs will not only teach participants how to find protection in nature, but will also explore the spiritual and beneficial properties of herbs, giving context and history to the art of natural healing.