Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 reflection on Hurricane Katrina, was so beautiful and yet so difficult to read – I found myself lingering to enjoy the language while at the same time wanting to close my eyes to escape the circumstances of these characters. The poetry of Ward’s storytelling is shockingly beautiful, especially when set against the horrors she describes.
This is the story of the Batiste family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. While you might start this novel thinking that the effects of the hurricane will be the most powerful part of this novel, it is in fact only the culmination of a series of violent and savage incidents. A brother’s birth and a mother’s death, dog fights and fights between friends, not to mention everyday acts of existing in an impoverished and unfeeling world: these all become equally important acts of survival, pushing the plot forward, gathering strength along with the hurricane winds.
The children – and they are children, in spite of their brutal experiences – seem to live a feral life, half wild like the dogs they train to fight. With an absent mother and a father who might as well be, Esch and her brother Randall do their best to keep the family life stable for seven year old Junior. Meanwhile, Skeetah identifies more with his pit bull, China, who – emotionally at least – fulfills the role for him of mother as well as romantic partner. He seems to care for nothing more than his dog, but when tested in a shocking way during the hurricane, Skeetah sacrifices everything for his family.
Esch is a perfect choice for narrator, naive though she may be. Her passive dialogue is in direct contrast with the strength of her interior voice. She speaks few words out loud, but her narration is descriptive, intelligent and above all perceptive. She is able to compare her experiences to a book of Greek mythology – which she hides from her family, much like she hides her true self. She doesn’t yet understand herself or her role in the world, so her perspective moves in and out of focus, resolving itself as she overcomes her circumstances.
While the subject of family is a major theme of this novel, it is motherhood in particular that is problematic for Esch. Her memories of her own mother are faded, and her example of maternal instinct is the pit bull China, who commits atrocious acts against her own puppies. China’s birthing scene is as violent as any dog fight that comes later in the novel. Esch has her own reasons for maternal curiousity, and during an especially intense climactic scene between China and her offspring, she thinks, “Is this what motherhood is?”
Even after the wreckage of the hurricane and the ambiguous ending for the Batiste family, I still feel that the ultimate message of this novel is one of hope: salvaging the bones, creating a life out of what is left behind after tragedy. Like Skeetah telling China to “make them know” in the dog pit, Esch tells her story to make us know her strength – that it can be honourable to be savage, to fight for a place in the world, and create life in the face of disaster.