Even after this novel won the National Book Award for 2011, I put off reading it. I wanted to read it; I just wanted to be able to skip over the parts centering on dog fighting, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t skip over parts of a book unless they’re totally boring, and I knew Salvage the Bones, whatever else it was, wasn’t going to be boring.
In Salvage the Bones, her second novel, Mississippi born author, Jesmyn Ward revisits the tattered fictional town, Bois Sauvage, of her first book, an impoverished community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast that is mostly African-American.
The “black heart of Bois Sauvage” is home to fourteen-year-old Esch Batiste, a precocious, passionate, and perceptive girl, who lives with her alcoholic and (sometimes) abusive father, Claude, her brother, Randall, who dreams of escaping the poverty of Bois Sauvage through a basketball scholarship, her brother, Skeetah, who dotes on his prize pit bull, China, and softens only for her or for Esch, and her little brother, Junior, who doesn’t do much but clamor for the attention of the other members of the family or burrow in the earth beneath the house, more animal than human.
“Home” for the Batiste family is “the Pit,” which is the name they gave their backwoods plot of land, a plot of land dominated by old, rusting cars and trucks, parked with their hood open, and feral chickens that lay eggs when the family is lucky. The family survives on Top Ramen (every night), eggs, and the occasional wild squirrel, barbecued, and eaten with stolen bread. The sheets on the bed are so dirty that “we’d wake up often in the middle of the night, itching, scratching a shin, an ankle.”
Life in Bois Sauvage isn’t all bad, though. It’s presented as a place of natural beauty, a beautiful wood planted with pecans and magnolias, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. A place where “animals dart between the valleys of shadow” and where “birds trill up through pathways of sunlight.” Esch and her brothers swim nude in the dirty lake that formed after Esch’s now deceased grandparents sold off layer-after-layer of usable earth. The boys of Bois Sauvage shoot baskets. The girls jump rope with a makeshift jump rope-extension cord. And, here’s the one part of the book I hated, they fight dogs, including Skeetah’s much loved China. If you haven’t read this book, you might not believe a boy who puts his dog in dog fights could also love that dog with a love that’s both fierce and protective, but Ward does a fantastic job of convincing the reader of just that.
Although they have little-to-no-money, the lives of the Batiste siblings are, in some respects, rich. They’re adventurous, and each member of the family loves the other members. Esch, herself, is comforted by repeated readings of Faulkner’s novels and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and it’s to the ancient myths that she turns to find comfort in life.
When the novel opens, Skeetah’s beloved pit bull, China, who is “white and beautiful and gorgeous as a magnolia on the trash-strewn, hardscrabble Pit, where everything else is starving, fighting, struggling,” is laboring to give birth to her puppies. If they live and if they thrive, they will provide money for Randall to go to basketball camp. Esch isn’t thinking about money, though. Watching China birth her puppies reminds Esch of the fact that her own mother died seven years ago laboring “under her own bare burning bulb,” giving birth to Junior. Since that time, Esch has been surrounded by men. These “men” include the friends of her older brothers, with whom she’s been having sex since the age of twelve. Talking about her first sexual partner, Esch says: “. . .it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop.”
Sex was the only thing that ever came easy to Esch, and it provided a way for her to escape, for a time, the family’s dire poverty. A junior in high school, with a passion for literature, Esch would make love with a boy in the back seat of one of the many stripped down cars that dotted the Batiste’s property, or even in the dirt, all the time pretending she was Psyche, Eurydice, Daphne, or any one of her favorites from Greek mythology. Now she’s pregnant by a friend of her brothers named Manny, a boy Esch fancies herself thoroughly in love with, though Manny dotes on his girlfriend and won’t even look at Esch anymore. Nevertheless, Esch says, “he was the sun,” and she compares her love for Manny to the mythological Jason and Medea:
When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. I know her. In every one of the Greeks’ mythology tales, there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.
While the boys and Esch are worried about China as she “. . .tenses and there are a million marbles under her skin, and then she seems to be turning herself inside out,” Claude Batiste is worried about something more all-consuming: the town of Bois Sauvage is right in the path of Hurricane Katrina.
Salvage the Bones is constructed as a “countdown to Katrina,” in much the same way Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite was a “countdown to a horrific storm,” though one that couldn’t approach Katrina’s power and destruction. Salvage the Bones, however, is not a “book about Katrina.” It’s a book about a family that just happens to live in Katrina’s path, and it’s far more realistic than Lark and Termite, a book that was infused with a heavy dose of mysticism and the mystical connections that can exist between siblings. The connections among Esch and her brothers are deep and raw as an open wound. There’s nothing mystical about them.
Each of the novel’s twelve chapters is narrated by Esch, in the present tense, and is presented as a sort of vignette, almost totally self-contained. Each recounts a swelteringly hot day leading up to and just after Katrina. The plot of Salvage the Bones might sound hokey and cliché. After all, motherless children, unwed mothers, and poverty stricken families abound in literature. And, though this is an ancient, archetypal tale, Ward imbues it with freshness, with a poetic fierceness all her own, while still tying the story of the Batitse family to classical tragedy. The fact that stories like this one have been told and retold makes little difference here. As Arnold Schoenberg pointed out, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” Ward always manages to keep her readers just slightly off-balance. When we expect kindness, she delivers violence; when we expect violence, she gives us sweetness; when we expect sweetness, she gives us heartbreak.
One thing Ward doesn’t do is present suffering as something ennobling. Had she done so, it would have struck a very discordant note in this pitch-perfect book. Those who have suffered know there’s nothing at all ennobling about it. Ward knows that all suffering, like Katrina, “cut[s] us to the bone.” This is book that pulls no punches. It’s packed with scenes of pups arriving, pups dying, the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, bloody dog fights, fingers being hacked off, dreams being destroyed, and hearts being broken. None of it is ennobling in the slightest, and none of it is meant to be.
Esch, her given name is “Eshelle,” is a wonderful heroine, but she’s far from typical. She’s a bookworm. She isn’t particularly pretty, though she’s not tomboyish, either. She’s downright sexual. A fierce, and fiercely poetic, girl, Esch narrates her book in the beautiful-but-gritty language of southern Mississippi. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain,” and his scalp “looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”
To be sure, this is a book written in a heady, redolent language, something that is both its greatest strength and for some readers, its biggest flaw. Ward never uses just one metaphor or simile if she can use three. Her sentences are beautiful, gorgeous even, but eventually they begin to tire the reader out. She seems to love to employ techniques from ancient Greek poetry like kenning, which is the fusing of two words into one, such as rugrat, trampstamp, boytoy, or biblethumper, and more often, the epic simile, which employs narrative. For example, Esch’s father’s bandaged hand “looked like a webworm moth nest wound tight in a pecan tree, a yarn of larvae eating at the ripe green leaves beneath to burst forth in black-winged flurry in the throat-closing heat of fall.”
And there’s the description of her mother catching a shark: “She hauled it in and let out a laugh that swooped it into the sky with the pelicans and flew away, wind-ready as wide as their wings.”
It’s lyrical; it’s beautiful; sometimes it’s just a little too much. It’s vivid and it’s specific, but it can also stall the narrative and eventually, wear on the reader. Still, most of the time, I thought it worked well in this book. Ward is a classicist. This is storytelling that harkens back to ancient myth. To employ the techniques of ancient myth only seems natural, and right.
If Esch is the emotional center of this book, its heart, so to speak, it’s her brother Skeetah who drives the narrative forward, or more precisely, Skeetah’s love for China. Despite the fact that Skeetah is responsible for making China a “fighting dog,” his great love for her is never in doubt, and it’s the most memorable thing about this story, even more memorable than Katrina, herself.
Skeetah’s love for China is palpable. It shimmers; his entire life revolves around her. We know that, without a doubt. Yet the book’s bloodiest scenes – the ones in which Skeetah pits China against other dogs in illegal fights – are just as believable. As I wrote earlier in this review, an author has to be a bit of a magician to pull off something like that, and Ward does it.
Another bit of magic is the contrast between Manny’s indifference toward Esch and their growing baby and Skeetah’s deep love for China and her puppies. Manny is repulsed by a pregnant Esch, while proud Skeetah, in defiance of his father and Randall, gathers his beloved China and her puppies into the house as Katrina draws near. “Everything deserve to live,” Skeetah tells Claude and Randall. “Everything need a chance.”
There’s a clear sense of impending doom on every page of Salvage the Bones. We know the hurricane is approaching, and we want these characters to care a bit more about that than they do. Puppies and basketball scholarships and even babies-yet-to-be-born aren’t going to matter if the Batiste family doesn’t live through the storm.
And when the hurricane does hit Bois Sauvage, the reader feels the panic, the blind terror, and the cataclysmic force of all that wind and water. Katrina, too, in this book, at least, is presented as a mythological character, a savage, vengeful goddess:
There is a lake growing in the yard. It moves under the broken trees like a creeping animal, a wide-nosed snake. Its head disappears under the house where we stand, its tail wider and wider, like it has eaten something greater than itself, and that great tail stretches out behind it into the woods, toward the Pit. . . . The wind ripples the water and it is coming for us.
What’s salvaged, in this book, is more than just the bones, and it’s salvaged because of the strength of the Batiste family’s love for one another.
The right book won the National Book Award. Salvage the Bones is a magnificent work, and it has the definite feel of a classic about it. Jesmyn Ward is a writer of formidable talent and power. Expect great things from her.
Recommended: This a difficult book to read because its tragedy is so great and so raw. Animal lovers like me are going to have an especially difficult time with parts of it, and many will have to skim certain pages. Still, it’s such an astonishing book that I can’t help but recommend it, with the warning not to expect comfort. And I know I said the extended metaphors and similes could be a bit overdone. I stand by that, but they are so beautiful, and this book is so well written, I couldn’t possibly give it any lower that a perfect 5/5. That’s China on the cover, and he’s a very fitting image for this book.