Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
Fiction: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in 2011. It is a powerful story of a poor family near the Mississippi coast. Esch is fifteen, living with her father and three brothers. She has just learned she is pregnant. Her father drinks heavily, but even in his condition he knows that a hurricane is coming. What he does not know is that preparing for that hurricane will become the least of his family’s concerns.
Ward writes vivid descriptions of people, events, and scenery. You can almost feel the humidity in the Mississippi forests where her characters live. Her words bring the scenes to life: teenagers gathered to fight their dogs, the lust and hunger of a young girl giving herself to the boy she adores, the fear and exhilaration of kids breaking into a neighbor’s barn, the terror of cowering in a house that is losing its battle with a category 5 hurricane. You can smell the iron in the blood from fighting dogs and fleeing children, you can smell the rot of the wood, you can hear the roar of the wind and the metronome of a bouncing ball, you can see the debris left by wind and water.
Ward’s prose is song and story. Poetry and primal scream. She writes about forgotten people: poor, African American, rural, southern. She writes with ferocity and tenderness. Poverty and racism have taken their swings at these folks. Childbirth killed their mother, alcohol has ensnared their father, the hurricane is poised to cleanse the land as though they had never lived there, but this family will endure. They may be knocked down, but they will not give up.
Esch is the protagonist, and she is as complex a character as I have seen. Fifteen, she loves sex and she loves Manny. The descriptions of her feelings for him are powerful, vivid, shameless and blunt. The descriptions of their intercourse are hard to read. Manny is selfish and does not love Esch. He is, in fact, living with another woman. But he is happy to take advantage of Esch’s feelings, and the result is basic biology. Esch becomes pregnant. How she deals with this impending hurricane within her own body at the same time as her family deals with the pending arrival of Katrina gives the book an extraordinary power. The tension rises as the storm draws nearer–and as the baby grows within her body.
The descriptions of poor, rural, African American life in southern Mississippi are jarring and difficult. For me, that is a reason to be glad I read them. It is easy to take my middle-class privilege for granted. I have known nothing else. I have never lived in a house that needed to be boarded up for a hurricane. I have never lived in a situation where we had to steal food to survive–or steal a pregnancy test to confirm what my body was saying. I have never watched my father drink himself to forgetfulness. I have never had my hopes set on performing well in a basketball tournament–or had them crushed when my brother got into a fight with my sister’s baby’s father during the game. I have never had my house shifted off its foundation by a storm, nor had to cut a hole in the roof to escape through the attic. I have never had to watch my dog ripped away by the current of floodwaters during a storm. These are not experiences I would ever want to have. Through the power of her prose, Ward shares these experiences in ways that break through the differences in race and economics and geography and identity and speak to our common humanity.
Salvage the Bones is an amazing story about an amazing girl. It is also the story of people who have nothing to lose but each other–yet when it looks like they will lose everything, they somehow find out just how strong they are and how strong the bonds of family, friendship, and survival are. A truly extraordinary novel.