Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Salvage the Bones" Book Review

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is an informally written story of survival and loss set in fictional Bois Sauvage, an African-American enclave in Mississippi devastated by hurricane Katrina. Over a twelve-day time span, the novel demonstrates the existing local culture and resilience of the human spirit in the face of catastrophe. In 2005, Katrina killed more than 1,600 people, demolished 200,000 homes and displaced roughly 1,000,000 people.

A minor theme is a look at motherhood, set amidst the "mother of all storms," with the omnipresent absence of the family's matriarch, Esch's pregnancy and the family pet bearing her first litter. Esch is the main character and voice of the novel, an unwed pregnant teen, but the reader doesn't learn her name until page twenty. She is the only female in her family and also in their pack of friends. She loves to read literature, but this quality seems incongruent with the rest of her character, which is uneducated and lacking in ambition and moral standards. Where did she acquire the smarts or even the interest to read Mythology?

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Skeetah's dog, China, is an important character that unifies the story, representing something worth loving and sacrificing for. Skeetah is devoted to her, and she is fiercely loyal in return, even ready to kill Father on command, which Skeetah thankfully doesn't do. Junior, the youngest brother whose birth caused their mother's death, is fascinated by China's litter because it helps him understand his own beginning. He fears for the puppies when they struggle for survival, facing abandonment by China and ultimate death. Esch compares her motherhood role to China's, wondering, "Is this what motherhood is?" when she observes China succeed in killing a pup.

The culture is tragically sad, with their illegal dog fights hidden in the woods, teen promiscuity accepted as normal coupled with no prenatal care, and stealing from white people and stores accepted as long as the thief doesn't get caught. Also, the grandparents and original owners of the family's fifteen-acre homestead shortsightedly sold their clay dirt to white men, dangerously risking the stability of their residence. The characters speak poor English and live in squalor, like not doing laundry until bugs infesting their sheets made it a priority. They eat squirrel, even when the smelly bowels are full of fecal matter, and risk infection by reusing Ace bandages.

A drawback is that Ward overdoes metaphors throughout the story, like Esch's tennis shoes, "scrubbed until they are as close to white as they can get: off white, a dirty cream the color of egg whites cooked with pepper." Less description would have been more. Also, Ward could have included illustrations of "the Pit" to help readers visualize the family plot, and the story doesn't answer several questions: Does China come back? What becomes of Esch's baby? Does the family rebuild in Mississippi or relocate, and do their lives improve? And most importantly, do they ever learn to grasp a solid moral compass?

The title Salvage the Bones alludes to surmounting catastrophic loss and salvaging what one can from the wreckage. It is a good read for anyone interested in the black culture of the South, Katrina or hurricanes in general. The novel won the 2011 National Book Award with its sympathetic characters devastated by a famous natural disaster, but readers may secretly root for the upheaval since it could finally disrupt a cycle of poverty entrenched in a segment of the U. S. population that desperately needs to change. The story reminds one of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, another recent novel depicting the plight of the African-Americans in the deep South, perhaps indicating a trend.


Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (New York, NY: Bloomsburg USA, 2011).

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