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Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Literary fiction

Let Us Descend

Repeat author

Jesmyn Ward is back at Book of the Month – other BOTMs include Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

by Jesmyn Ward

Excellent choice

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Quick take

Haunting and haunted, this is the powerful story of an enslaved girl seeking redemption with the help of her ancestors.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Supernatural

    Supernatural

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_LGBTQ

    LGBTQ+ themes

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Cerebral

    Cerebral

Synopsis

Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes that mention sexual assault.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Let Us Descend.
Let Us Descend

CHAPTER 1

Mama’s Bladed Hands

The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun’s leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire’s rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields. Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother’s shoulder. On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree’s roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a snake, clumsily hewn.

“Take this,” my mother said, throwing the crooked limb to me. “I whittled it when I was small.”

I missed it, and the jagged staff clattered to the ground. I picked it up and held it so tight the knobs from her hewing cut, and then my mother bought her own dark limb down. She had never struck me before, not with her hands, not with wood. Pain burned my shoulder, then lanced through the other.

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Why I love it

Every generation, there comes along a storyteller who doesn’t just tell the story of America, but who sings it. Jesmyn Ward is one such griot. She spins sentences made of silk that land solid as stone. In this story about the love of women—a mother’s love, a mother’s mother’s love, and a daughter’s trust—readers are gathered together in the name of hope.

Annis is heartbroken and inconsolable after her mother is sold South to the slave market in nineteenth-century New Orleans. A descendant of West African warrior women, Annis sinks beneath the weight of her grief, unable to find the strength her mother always insisted she carried within. Then she finally finds healing and love in the arms of Safi, until the two of them are sold South just like Annis’s mother.

Along the journey, a weather spirit carrying the name of Annis’s grandmother appears to her. At times rejecting the spirit’s guidance and at other times seeking her protection, Annis begins to learn, through a careful piecing together of memory, how to create her own version of freedom.

This is a book not to be missed. You will pick it up and be held in its thrall until you turn the last page. Let Us Descend urges us to cast our eyes upward to the wind rustling the trees, to hear voices in the song of a bird, to know that spirits are ever-present, if we just pause long enough to listen.

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Member ratings (4,430)

  • Michelle B.

    Alexandria, VA

    A must read!! This book was beautifully written. I felt everything that she wrote!! I lost my breath as I was reading it. I give it a chefs kiss along with 10 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️!! 

  • Katrina M.

    Saint Louis, MO

    It was a heartbreaking read. Slow at times and very heavy. However, I’m glad that I read it. The book places readers into the mind of a woman experiencing American Slavery in a very concretely. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Lillian F.

    Billerica, MA

    Wow. I had to read this work of art slowly as it was beautiful and yet so cruel and horrible at the same time. Seeing the life of a young woman slave was heartbreaking. I love that she rises. ❤️❤️

  • Nikki B.

    Milwaukee, WI

    The hope Annis’ mother provides with stories of life before slavery, the spirit and her own wishes for Annis, and the backdrop of existing in nature/the wild versus the ugliness of society…. Beautiful

  • Lindsay B.

    Billings, MT

    Such a hard, heartbreaking, powerful story. The first half was slow, but I couldn’t put the book down in the second half. Evocative, exquisite writing. This was my first J. Ward. It won’t be my last!

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