Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Salvage the Bones

Salvage The Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury August 2011
(Finalist for the 2011 National Book Award)


A hurricane is on its way to Mississipi, but fifteen year old Esch is unconcerned. Hurricanes come through her town all the time. Besides, she has bigger problems on her mind. Her brother Skeetah’s beloved pit bull China has just given birth to puppies. Her brother Randall is vying for the scholarship that will allow him to pursue his dreams of playing basketball. Youngest brother Junior is growing up without the love of a mother and largely without a father, since he is often drunk and distant. Esch is pregnant with the baby of her brother’s friend, a boy who has a girlfriend and seems to have little interest in Esch anymore. And the hurricane on its way? The hurricane is called Katrina.

Ms. Ward sets up a very tense situation from the beginning. Every day is tough for this family, even before the disaster that the reader knows is imminent. I wasn’t sure how much I would like this book. It takes a little time to get invested in, perhaps because the reader knows what is coming and is eager to find out what happens to the family. It feels at time as if you are just flipping pages to get to the main event – how will they make it through the hurricane?

This book does an amazing job of setting the place. You really feel like you are in The Pit, the rural part of Bois Savauge where Esch and her family live.

“Pines sprout up in the ditches along the edge of the park, aside the netless basketball goals, under the piece-meal shade of the gap-toothed wooden play structure sinking into the earth, beside the stone picnic tables with their corners worn smooth by rain, even in the middle of the baseball field overgrown with grass. Maintenance workers, usually county convicts in green-and-white striped jumpsuits, come out ounce a year and halfheartedly try to trim back the encroaching wood, mow the grass to bloom, the pine seedlings. The wild things of Bois Sauvage ignore them; we are left to seed another year.”

Another very striking thing is Esch’s comparison of her own life to Greek mythology. During the week before the hurricane, she is reading the story of Medea and Jason and applies it to her own life in very striking ways. Portions of the novel are incredibly beautiful and poetic and juxtaposed with the gritty despair of dog fighting, poverty, and destruction, it is very impactful.

“Is this how Medea ran with her brother, hand in hand, away from their father’s hold to join the Argonauts? Did every step feel like the running leap a bird takes before flight?”

It takes some time to get invested in Salvage the Bones, but Ward has written a powerful meditation on love and family and the things that remain constant when everything falls apart. 

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