Mama died in childbirth; Daddy drinks for a living; Skeetah’s fighting pit bull is giving birth to her first litter; Esch is crazy for Manny but her appetite is off and she’s sick in the morning; there’s more dog food than people food in the house and Katrina is gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico—aimed at Bois Sauvage, Mississippi and the ramshackle property where the family lives.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones tells Hurricane Katrina from the other side—the poor communities and close-knit families that lived directly in destruction’s path. But the novel, while it relies heavily on Katrina for its dramatic climax, isn’t really about forces of nature. It’s about the indestructible bonds of a battered family—poor, hard-scrabble, fiercely protective of one another and loyal, working their limited options to survive and maybe live a better life.
The storyteller creates the magic in this book. Ward’s prose is luminous and original–no surpise that Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award. The writer speaks through Esch, a young teenage girl raised in a family of boys, mostly without her mother. Esch and her siblings, including Randall, whose hopes for a basketball scholarship to college hinge on a competition game, Junior, whose birth was the death of his unattended mother, and Skeetah with his dog devotion and dreams of raising and selling premium pit bull fighters, watch each other’s backs, spar over scarce resources, more or less mind Daddy and deal with what comes along. Plenty comes along. The hurricane looms as a distant threat but dying puppies, survival shoplifiting and stealing, callous boyfriends and a very real pregnancy, a terrible accident and the heat of a Mississippi summer shift and shape their days.
The details and the speech patterns lend authenticity to the story. You might learn how to hunt for free range eggs in the weeds and trash of the yard, fry up some eggs and bologna and lick the plate because you are still hungry, tame a pit bull or loose one to fight in a backwoods clearing, survey the wiped-away landscape after a Force 5 hurricane lands on your coastal town. Salvage the Bones is a good read—full of things I know to be true about tropical hurricanes and things I didn’t know about what it is like to live in Deep South poverty with a warm and scrappy family and not much else to call your own.
Salvage the Bones: A Novel Jesmyn Ward | Bloomsbury 2011