Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for fiction.
I first read about Salvage The Bones on Caribousmom’s blog and was so intrigued that I put it on hold at the library right away. When I started reading this novel and remembered that dog fighting played a part I wasn’t sure I could continue. I was drawn in by the main character, Esch, fifteen and pregnant, by her family, by their love for each other, by their need to hold on to each other and their will to survive.
Hurricane Katrina is baring down on the coastal town of Bois Savage and its inhabitants. Black and white, rich and poor, people are preparing to stay or to evacuate. All Esch’s brother, Skeetah, can think about is laying in supplies for his pit bull, China, and saving her litter of puppies. Her father is panicking, her other brothers, Randell and Junior, are trying to help and Esch is struggling with the realization that she is pregnant and that the child’s father doesn’t give a damn about her.
Running through this drama is Esch’s love for Greek myths, particularly for the story of Medea.
In the middle of the dead circle, the boys snapped like the air before a storm. Skeetah and China stood at the edge. The boys arguing rises to an angry buzz, and the air that had been still before swoops and tunnels through the clearing, raising dust, making the boys close their eyes. Maybe Daddy is right; maybe Katrina is coming for us. Big Henry covers his nose with his rag. Did Medea bless the heroes before they set out on their journey? Did she stand on the deck of that ship like I stand in this clearing, womanly ripe, and weave spells for the rain to cloak their departure, to cloak her betrayal? Had Jason told her he loved her? Manny holds Kilo’s leash and stares at China. Skeetah and China do not move. From page 163.
Jesmyn Ward grew up on the Mississippi coast and her writing is filled with observation about that environment, giving a sense of place to Esch’s thoughts, even in times of great stress. And Esch’s family is woven into all she thinks, all she does.
There are no chattering squirrels, no haunted rabbits, no wading turtles in the woods. I don’t know where they have gone, but there are none here. When I look up into the sky, the grey of it shaking as I run, I see birds in great flocks that would darken the sun if we could see it through the thickening clouds. They are all flying away, all flying north. The flocks break and dip and soar, and they are Randell’s hand on a basketball, Skeet’s on a leash, my legs in a chase. I watch them until they vanish past the trees, and then there is only us, the woods, the leaves rattling underfoot. Vines catch my arms, my head; we tear through until we break out into the clearing before the fence, the field, the barn, the house, and I drop to my knees, and Randell leans back as if he would fall, both of us breathing hard, looking wet and newly born. From pages 206/207.
Ward’s writing is clear, sharp-edged and pulls no punches. There is abusive sex and there is violence. At times I wanted to stop reading but found I could not. This novel’s lyrical beauty is mixed with harsh reality. The reality of poverty in a country where most would like to ignore that poverty’s existence. Salvage the Bones will be one of my favorites books of the year.