The Richardson Review

Salvage the Bones

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, depicts the days immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina crashed onto the Gulf Coast and turned the world upside down.

The world of the novel’s Batiste family — three sons and a daughter with a long-dead mother and a “bombed-out drunk” father — is chaotic and unpredictable even in seasons of placid weather.  Much like Faulkner’s Compson family, the children have had to raise each other, but they are in the grip of deadening rural poverty where their yard reflects a general chaos, littered as it is with “a dump truck rust-barnacled,” “old washing machines,” “a car’s half-eaten skeleton” and “discarded plastic garbage cans and detached fenders.”  Even the landscape looms ugly and foreboding: “ponds … are filled with slime,” and swimming holes are “fed by skinny clear creeks [but] the earth makes the holes black, and the trees make them as filthy with leaves as a dog is with fleas.”  It is an environment where the children “catch boils” as easily as they “used to catch stray dogs.”  Furthermore, a constant threat of physical injury becomes reality in the father’s horrifying accident.

The violence of the hurricane bearing down on Bois Sauvage parallels the violence the Batiste children experience daily.  Esch, the novel’s narrator and 15-year-old sister to Randall (17), Skeetah (16) and Junior (7), relates the rough tenderness with which Skeetah tends his pit bull, China, during and after the delivery of her pups, counterpointed by the dog’s own violence toward her offspring and other dogs.  The dog represents the one thing of value Skeetah possesses, valuable for the money he hopes to realize from the sale of the pups, and valuable for the status of manhood he achieves when China fights. The dogfight Esch describes occurs deep in the forest — where she is the only female onlooker amid 15 boys and men — is terrifying in its savagery (Bois Sauvage being aptly named).

The potential for sexual violence by boys and men against Esch also permeates much of the novel. A willing participant in sex since the age of 12 (because it was “easier to let them get what they wanted instead of denying them, instead of making them see me”), Esch ultimately longs for love from 19-year-old Manny, by whom she has just discovered she is pregnant. While she realizes Manny’s interest in her is simply physical, she insists during a violent sexual act that he at least look at her face.

The novel builds toward the day Katrina makes landfall, which is also a violent sexual act; Esch describes it as a “fast seduction,” the water “tonguing its way up my thighs.” Yet, as the hurricane crashes down, the Batiste family literally and symbolically rises toward a rough safety and — for the reader — toward a paradoxical affirmation of the importance and values of family and community when the world sinks “to the lowest level of nothing but life itself.”

EMMA:  Esch is one of the most powerfully drawn female characters I’ve encountered in contemporary American fiction. I love her for many reasons, perhaps especially because she looks for understanding of her own life when she reads the summer reading list assigned by her English teacher, Miss Dedeaux. Esch’s situation is as troubling as that of all those Shakespearean young women who are motherless and who have feckless or foolish fathers (Ophelia in Hamlet is no doubt the most haunting). Esch recounts the violence of Junior’s birth (he “came out purple and blue as a hydrangea”) and her mother’s death immediately afterwards:  “And then Mama died, and there was no one left for me to hold on to.” Esch’s father, unlike Polonius, though, has a moment of clarity and is redeemed to himself and to the reader. And though the water “comes to” both Esch and Ophelia, Esch survives because she discovers that she does, in fact, have someone to “hold on to.” That discovery for the reader is what makes Salvage the Bones a worthy recipient of the National Book Award.

TOM: I agree with Emma’s assessment of the power and brilliance of Esch’s characterization. Esch is older than her years, but there remains about her a touch of the naive, which gives a gritty reality to her vision and voice. She sees more than she understands, yet she understands more than she can consciously articulate. As a reader, especially of mythology, she is also equipped to learn lessons from Katrina that transcend the limitations of her experiences and world order. After all, Katrina destroyed even the “old white-columned homes that faced the beach, that made us feel small and dirty and poorer.” More importantly, though, Esch recognized the epic significance of the storm: Katrina was “the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered … who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage.” Esch reminds the reader in the final line of the novel that she, too, will be a mother, a sister to China, a fighter, living in the Pit that has now been transformed into a “circle of light.” Katrina has given her a chance at a new life, and the reader is left to feel that that chance will not be wasted.