Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Website, Twitter)
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: literary fiction
I read it as an: hardback
Length: 261 pp
Published by: Bloomsbury (30 Aug 2011)
Salvage the Bones is technically a story about Hurricane Katrina. Really, though, it is about one family, the Batistes, living in extreme poverty in southern Mississippi. Narrated by Esch, the pregnant 15 year old only daughter in a family of boys, the 12 days of the story leading up to Katrina making landfall explore the family dynamics and dramas of Esch’s life.
****All the spoilers below!****
At the heart of this novel is the theme of motherhood. The opening scene is of China birthing puppies. China is the fighting pit bull that belongs to Esch’s brother Skeeter, and is probably the only being in the story who isn’t actually neglected in some way. Esch’s mother died several years previously in childbirth, and her absence is felt continually throughout the novel. If she had lived, the question is what would have changed for their family, especially for Esch. Would she have gotten pregnant at 15? Would she and her brothers have been tended to better so that they had a fighting chance at a better life? Of course no one will ever know, but I tend to think things wouldn’t be quite so bleak if their mother were still alive.
The theme carries on with Esch herself. She learns she is pregnant at 15 and, while she is scared like anyone would be in that situation, it felt like she came to accept it really quickly. Perhaps that is partly because she has no money to pay for an abortion, nor for any more reliable birth control previously. She has no real choice but to have the baby, so she seems quick to decide to carry on. Once her family learns about the pregnancy, none of them really seem surprised. Her oldest brother, Randall, seems angry, not at Esch but at Manny, the boy who got her pregnant. The friends of the group, especially Big Henry, are supportive and Big Henry goes so far as to tell her the baby will have a lot of daddies to help take care of it. However, I wonder if it is foreshadowing when China kills one of her puppies, several others die of parvo, and then the ones who have managed to survive parvo and China all get swept away, along with China herself, in Katrina’s storm surge. Motherhood is a dangerous and terrifying role in Esch’s world. Parenting is something mysterious and difficult, reinforced by their absentee, drunk father, China’s violence towards her pups, and the death of Esch’s mother.
Strangely, China is probably the best-tended and best-loved character in the whole book. Skeeter dotes on her and will do anything for her, from stealing medicines she needs to giving her food they should be saving for themselves. From his perspective, he fights China for honor. I confess this is something I absolutely didn’t understand. I don’t think dogs have a sense of honor; that is something some people might have, and dogs are brave and loyal and all good things, but I don’t think they understand honor in that sense, so I don’t know why Skeeter would have said he was fighting her for honor. If you love your dog, why the hell would you make it fight and get injured or possibly killed? It sounds more like it is something he is compensating for rather than anything to do with honor, or that he feels he has something to prove, whether to himself or to others, I’m not sure. He claims he didn’t fight her for the money, and yet the survival of her pups is of paramount importance to him because he plans to sell them. So I can’t quite get my head around this one.
Ward did an excellent job of portraying the crushing poverty the Batiste family lived in. They lived in a house their father built, and frequently they scavenged parts from their grandmother’s empty house to fix their own. The image I had was barely a step up from the swamp shack at the beginning of the Pirates ride. They had electricity and running water but it seemed those were always on the edge of being cut off, there was never enough food, and what food they did have was incredibly unhealthy. I didn’t mark it, but there was a line where Esch was thinking about the punch they have in the house to drink and how that was the closest they had ever gotten to real juice. It is hard to think that there are people in this country who live at this level of poverty. It was even more wrenching to read that Esch’s oldest brother Randall had a real chance to get out and go to college on a basketball scholarship, but his own family ruined that chance for him by starting a brawl at Randall’s championship game. He was so close to getting out and being able to improve his life and the lives of his siblings, and then they totally sabotaged it. I don’t think it was intentional, at least not on the part of the siblings, but I am not so sure about Manny. He is a devious little shit and I can easily see him starting a fight just to ruin another person’s chances of getting out of their town.
Throughout, Esch seems incredibly naive and to have zero self respect. We generally see her as she relates the opinions of others about her. She also romanticizes so much about Greek mythology, comparing her situation to that of Jason and Medea or other figures from mythology. Real life doesn’t resemble myth, and it really highlights how very young Esch is that she is comparing the two like that.
Ultimately, I don’t really know how to rate this novel. The writing was solid and sometimes lyrical, and I think Ward did a good job capturing the atmosphere of extreme poverty and desperation. I am not sure I liked the plot itself, though I don’t know if it is because I had a hard time identifying with the characters or if it’s something else I can’t put my finger on. In any case, I think this is an important read that sheds light on the experiences of people living hand to mouth, where daily life is a constant struggle. I am glad I read it.
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