Salvage the Bones is the story of the Batiste family, who lead difficult lives in a small town near the Mississippi coast. This novel is the story of the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath as told by Esch, the only girl in a family of boys, whose mother died after giving birth to her youngest son.
Esch’s voice is amazing: she’s a smart, tough teenager. She’s a bit in love with Manny, the father of her unborn child. She fiercely loves her siblings and even her depressed, alcoholic father. She especially loves her brother Skeetah, who in turn loves his pit bull China, who gives birth in the opening chapter of the book. Skeetah’s relationship with China is Esch’s model for parental love. Her dysfunctional model for romantic love comes from her assigned summer reading of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: the love story of Medea and Jason, which ends in betrayal.
This is not a sentimental story. The Batistes are in tough circumstances: Dad is an alcoholic who can’t keep a job and is very depressed since his wife died. The family has little money, which hurts Randall, who aspires to play college basketball. Esch starts having sex at age 12, and she’s a teenager who’s pregnant. Skeetah raises China, the pit bull, and fiercely tends to her puppies because they are his future source of income. The details of the story make it seem like it will be a tough go, but the strong voice of Esch makes it work. She’s strong, a bit moony over Manny, and a dedicated mother already. The other thing that makes the story work is that I don’t feel manipulated by the story or by the characters. It’s not a tragic story with a feel-good hook of a sad and wise-beyond-his-years child. I’m thinking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. These kids feel smart but real.
Finally, what makes this work is the tone of the tragic story. We all know that Hurricane Katrina is coming, and we all know what horrendous damage it left in its wake. Every episode in this story, from the pit bull fighting to the kids fighting to the hurricane march onward, inevitably to the storm.
I was surprised by how much I liked this book. I thought the dog fighting and grim story would be too much, but they weren’t. The writing is very good—and very deserving of the National Book Award—and the characters felt very real. I hope Jesmyn Ward returns to University of Michigan, where she received her MFA, for a reading soon.
SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward
Publication date: August 31, 2011