Jesmyn Ward’s National Book award winner “Salvage the Bones” is a complex, often difficult story that simply pulls the reader into the lives of a poor Mississippi family that ultimately survives Hurricane Katrina. In a Question and Answer session regarding the book, Jesmyn Ward says “I often feel that if I can get the language just right, the language hypnotizes the reader.” In Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward not only succeeds in hypnotizing the reader, but she makes the reader feel like she is living through every painful and uncomfortable moment described in the book.
The novel is broken down into twelve days, days one through eleven leading up to Hurricane Katrina, and day twelve describing the initial aftermath. Each day follows siblings Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior, as well as “Daddy”, living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. The family’s mother had died 7 years before during child birth. Along with the family are friends Manny, Marquise and Big Henry, as well as others. A lot happens during the 12 days, but interspersed throughout the first 11 days are preparations for the hurricane.
At the start of the novel Skeetah’s beloved pit bull, China, is giving birth to 5 puppies. China, the puppies and dog fighting play a significant role in the book. Esch, who is 15 years old and telling the story, is naively in love with Manny and discovers early in the story that she is pregnant.
A siblings are very active. Skeetah breaks into a neighboring family’s property to get worming medication for his beloved China and the puppies. Daddy, an alcoholic, has an accident and loses some of his fingers. Randall, a basketball prodigy, loses an opportunity to go to a basketball camp where he could be discovered. Esch and Manny have a falling out and Junior, 7 years old, just tries to keep up. Throughout Esch’s narration she weaves in the story of Medea, the Greek sorceress who slaughters her children to punish her husband for taking a new bride. This is a paltry summary of a complex and beautifully written story.
The Hurricane proves to be much stronger and violent than the family anticipated. Their house is devastated and they almost drown, but through ingenuity and love they all find a way to survive. Looking at the aftermath, Esch observes that “…there is nothing but mangled wood and steel in a great pile, and suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it.”
The book is simply brilliant. Throughout all the tragedy the family sticks together and that strength and love is one of the hopeful aspects of an otherwise difficult story. In addition, their close friendships, in particular with Big Henry, reassure the reader of the goodness in the world. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time. Ward’s ability to make the reader actually feel part of the story, without ever telling the reader how to feel or having any of the characters engage in a soliloquy about their emotions is awe inspiring. This book deserved the National Book Award and is a must read. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.