Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Salvage the Bones, by Jemsyn Ward

Bloomsbury USA, 275 pages, $24

Reviewed by Sharon Crowley

Young writers are often told, “Write what you know.” But few writers follow this advice as successfully as Jesmyn Ward in her breathtaking second novel, Salvage the Bones. Winner of the 2011 National Book Award, Salvage the Bones chronicles twelve days in the lives of fourteen-year-old Esch and her family as Hurricane Katrina threatens their precarious existence on the Mississippi coast.

My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005; we left my grandmother’s flooding house, were refused shelter by a white family, and took refuge in trucks in an open field during a Category Five hurricane. I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive. I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.

Nor does life spare any of the characters in Salvage the Bones. Esch, motherless, lives in a house full of men on family land called the Pit in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. Her beaten-down, alcoholic father barely manages to provide his children with daily meals of Top Ramen mixed with hot dogs. Esch’s world revolves around her brothers—seventeen-year-old Randall, who dreams of attaining a better life through basketball, sixteen-year-old Skeetah, who seeks purpose and profit through his beloved pit bull China and her sickly newborn pups, and young Junior, who hungers for anyone’s attention—and their male friends who visit the Pit. As the family collects water and scavenges for wood to prepare for the storm, Esch discovers she is pregnant by a boy who dismisses her in public and refuses to kiss her when he reaches for her in private. Sex isn’t new to Esch, but her consuming love for the coolly disinterested Manny is, and its power feels as destructive as the approaching wind and rain.

It all seems too much for a young girl to bear. But Esch is smart, strong, and emotionally self-sufficient out of necessity. The only perfect thing in Esch’s life is her assigned summer reading, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Although her teacher couldn’t have predicted the challenges of the coming summer, the Greek myths provide Esch with desperately needed strong female role models and kindred spirits caught in equally harsh circumstances. The tale of powerful yet lovelorn Medea is exactly what Esch needs to help her survive two forces of nature—love and a hurricane—that are beyond her control.

Salvage the Bones is luminously written, poetic, and unflinchingly direct. Ward doesn’t shy away from describing the realities of rural poverty, including fierce and bloody dogfighting. Ward’s honesty and nonjudgmental attitude are what make Salvage the Bones a novel readers will revisit for a second or third reading. For most Americans, Hurricane Katrina was a horror witnessed through the safety of television and computer screens. Salvage the Bones brings attention back to the summer of 2005 and to the vulnerable people who lived through the wreckage.

Sharon Crowley works in K-12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.
She was a Junior Great Books student and is forever thankful to her
fourth-grade teacher Ms. Lott for introducing her to the delight of
discussing stories.

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