Published by Bloomsbury on Aug. 2011
In Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, the radio warns of an impending hurricane, but the Batiste children aren’t worried. Only their hard-drinking, widowed father is concerned that this hurricane will be worse than all of the others his family has experienced.
As Daddy prepares for the hurricane, Esch, our fifteen-year-old narrator, struggles with her discovery that she is pregnant; Skeeter takes care of his prized pit bull, China, and her newborn puppies; Randall practices for an important basketball game; and Junior, the youngest, is just gets into everyone else’s business.
Beginning ten days before Hurricane Katrina and ending the day after, Salvage the Bones is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of Southern poverty and one of the greatest natural disasters to hit the U.S. Esch is a young girl surrounded by brothers and male friends, and in an environment that doesn’t empower her, she finds it easier to sleep with the boys who are after her than to resist. As a result, she becomes pregnant by Skeeter’s best friend, Manny, who uses her for sex but doesn’t have any real feelings for her. However, being a love-starved 15-year-old, Esch is in love with him and desperately wishes for him to care about her.
I found Esch to be a very believable character. She is more in love with the idea of Manny than with his actual character — who hasn’t been there? She also has this naive hope that the man who is screwing her will change and love her, which is frustrating to read but relatable. Perhaps my favorite thing about her is her love of Greek mythology. She is assigned to read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, a book that I devoured in high school, and is obsessed with the Medea story. She keeps trying to draw parallels between herself and this mythological woman, and it felt so realistic.
Jesmyn Ward also does a great job of portraying the life of this poor family and the culture of their community. It’s not a culture I’m familiar with, and I was impressed by Ward’s ability to write about the Batiste’s poverty in a neutral way; it is simply a fact of their existence, and they get along the best they can.
However, her descriptions of dog fighting may be problematic for some readers. She portrays dog fighting not as abusive but as an accepted part of the culture, and there is one long description of dog fighting that is very graphic and violent. It was hard to read, and I was revolted by the attitude the boys have that fighting their dogs is a matter of macho honor.
Ward’s writing is gorgeous, full of ice and fire and lush descriptions. Her descriptions of the woods are lovely, her writing about the fierce power of the hurricane is glorious, and Esch’s observations of Katrina’s aftermath are heartbreakingly powerful. However, as much as I love rich prose, the metaphors were sometimes a little too thick on the ground — and how often does she really need to describe the sweat glinting off her characters’ bodies?
“It’s Manny. Both of his hands are on the top of the doorsill, and he leans into the door, stretching his body like taffy. All I can see is the shadow of him and the white of his smile. It feels wrong to not be able to see his face, seems wrong that he is as dark as me now, that he would be washed dark by the sun behind him like ink set to bleeding over waterlogged paper.”
I would definitely recommend reading Salvage the Bones. The writing is beautiful, lyrical, and rhythmic, and Esh makes an intriguing narrator. It’s also an interesting look into another culture and has interesting themes of family loyalty and the meaning of motherhood.