Book Review: Salvage the Bones

Ward, Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury, 2011
272 pages (hardcover)

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It’s 2005, the summer before her junior year of high school, and Esch is spending it in the only place she’s ever known—Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. There she shares a ramshackle house in the woods with her brothers Randall, Skeetah, and Junior, and their father. Esch has been the woman of the house ever since her mother died of complications giving birth to Junior. The family makes do with the jumble of outbuildings, chicken pen, piles of rusting appliances and pond they affectionately refer to as “the Pit,” which got its name back when Esch’s grandfather excavated tons of red clay on the property to keep food on the table.

Esch is bright and loves to read, especially Greek mythology. But times are tough. Dad is a mechanic when he can get work and a drunk when he can’t. Skeetah scrimps and steals to feed his pit bull, China, a champion of the local dogfighting ring. Randall works out, hoping for a scholarship to basketball camp. Junior, the little brother, wriggles his way into everyone’s business looking for affection and then into the crawlspace under the house to escape their irritation.

Esch, wanting to make her own way, to be taken seriously as a woman, to find some power in her all-male society, has taken up with one of her brothers’ friends. Now, in the blistering heat of the Mississippi August, she discovers she’s pregnant. But she’ll have to deal with that later. Because China has just given birth to puppies that could pay for basketball camp, assuming they can get enough to eat—and that China doesn’t turn on them. And dad is carrying on about reports of an approaching hurricane—a big one this time—when an injury sends him to the emergency room, shutting down his storm preparations.

Vaguely aware of the looming crisis, Esch and her brothers prepare each in their own way. But how does a fifteen-year-old prepare for the onslaught of Katrina? The tempest surges into the Gulf, overflowing the Pit. Soon the family is huddled in the  flooded attic as the house sways off its foundation. Despite the potential cost, Skeetah has dragged China and the puppies up with him, fiercely defending his belief that “everything needs a chance to survive.”

Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s second novel and the recent winner of the National Book Award for fiction. The plot covers just twelve days leading up to, during, and immediately following the hurricane. The story, like the family’s existence, is brutal, raw. Skin and bones. But the sinews ripple with beauty. Ward’s language, like the storm, is rhythmic and powerful, stripping away excess and revealing the fundamental forms beneath: the love of a boy for a dog that proves her devotion with vicious jaws; the love of a small child for the dead mother he never knew; the love of a fumbling man for the children he never meant to raise on his own; the love of a girl for her unworthy lover and the panic of birthing his child without his acknowledgement.

This is not a feel-good read but one that finds beauty in the telling of difficult truths. A realistic portrayal of extreme rural poverty, it puts a face on the survivors of Katrina. And it hails the slim hopes that can exist even in the face of devastation, insisting with Skeetah that everything deserves a chance at survival.

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