I received a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Though I knew it was “about Katrina” and had been nominated for a 2011 National Book Award (which it subsequently won), I jumped into this story pretty blindly. That white dog on the cover? Yeah…she’s there for a reason.
Enter: unsuspecting moi, a former ASPCA employee/animal-loving vegetarian.
Salvage the Bones is not for the faint of heart. It follows the story of a family struggling to keep it together in an impoverished area of the Mississippi coast. Esch, the main character, is a fourteen-year-old girl who has just found out that she’s pregnant. She’s fiercely intelligent with a keen interest in Greek mythology, but she spends most of her time hanging out with her brothers.
The oldest brother is Skeetah, whose sole focus is on taking care of his prized white pit bull, China. China’s one of the top fighting dogs in the area, and though she’s loyal to Skeetah, she shows aggression towards everyone else, including her own newborn puppies. The next brother is Randall, a talented athlete. The baby of the family is Junior, now seven years old. Their mother died giving birth to him, and their father is an alcoholic who’s obsessed with preparing for hurricane season.
The family appears hard and impervious to all of the attacks the world throws its way, but Ward excels at portraying everyone’s fragility. So much of this book was devastating: children left to mostly fend for themselves and raise each other, the poverty they experience, Esch’s promiscuity (even when sex isn’t something she necessarily desires), their father’s inability to fight his own demons. And, for me, all references to dog fighting (which was intense at times). It’s a book that’s unrelentingly raw and brutal. Hurricane Katrina eventually arrived with the full force of her fury, yes, but the devastation started long before then.
One of the most powerful things I got from the book was its portrayal of motherhood. Gone are the moments of fuzzy happiness and maternal instincts of lore. Esch’s mother died giving birth; her absence has a profound effect on the family. China, the pit bull, has recently given birth, but she is a reluctant mother who must be prompted to nurture her newborns; her fighting instincts and need for self-preservation often trumps her maternal instincts. Now there’s Esch, a terrified young girl who will soon have to nurture a child of her own. Even Katrina proves to be a kind of mother, which Ward writes about in a way that blew me away:
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother 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 a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
This book was extremely difficult for me to read, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It’s brutal and painful, but Ward makes it well worth your time.
Salvage the Bones was released on August 30, 2011 by Bloomsbury.