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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'Salvage the Bones' by Jesmyn Ward

From the BLURB:

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel's framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family---motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce---pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

China is birthing puppies and people are battering down the hatches, expecting a big storm. Esch is feeling morning sickness, in the early stages of her pregnancy to one of the many boys she lays down with. Her brother, Skeetah, is preoccupied with China’s pups and wellbeing. Esch’s father is prone to drink since their Mama died giving birth to Junior, and fourteen-year-old Esch keeps looking at Manny out of the corner of her eye…

These are the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina – the days ‘before’, when nobody was prepared for the destruction about to befall them all.

‘Salvage the Bones’ was the 2011 National Book Award winner by Jesmyn Ward.

Ward’s novel is by no means a comfortable read. It’s partly that there’s a pervading sense of grim foreboding throughout the novel, as readers wade through the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. We know of the destruction to come, but as was the true-to-life case in 2005, the characters in ‘Salvage’ have no foresight, and are utterly unprepared for the Hurricane that will kill 1,833 people and decimate areas already burdened by poverty. But the book is also uncomfortable because Ward puts those areas under a microscope – observing the rural poor, and examining the many ways that their lives were already shambolic before the Hurricane hit.

Esch, our narrator, is fourteen and pregnant. She’s a bright young girl, who reads plenty and makes keen observations about her family and friends. But she is mother-less, and from a young age has sought comfort and gratification with local boys and her brother’s friends. Her reactions and thoughts on ‘laying’ with these boys are cringe-worthy for their innocence – when she thinks that she can’t say no, because it’s now expected of her. Or when she muses that she always thought local boy ‘Big Henry’ (who is in his 20’s) would one day come calling for her, like all the other boys, she’s surprised that he hasn’t already.

Esch’s thoughts are disarming and horrifying, mostly because Ward presents them so calmly and with a matter-of-fact innocence that wrenches the heart. It’s doubly heart-breaking because Esch is brilliant and intelligent, some of her observations are wonderfully perceptive;

“Junior, stop being orner.” It’s what Mama used to say to us when we were little, and I say it to Junior out of habit. Daddy used to say it sometimes, too, until he said it to Randall one day and Randall started giggling, and then Daddy figured out Randall was laughing because it sounded like ‘horny’. About a year ago I figured out what it was supposed to be after coming across its parent on the vocabulary list for my English class with Miss Dedeaux: ‘ornery’. It made me wonder if there were other words Mama mashed like that. They used to pop up in my head sometime when I was doing the stupidest things: ‘tetrified’ when I was sweeping the kitchen and Daddy came in dripping beer and kicking chairs. ‘Belove’ when Manny was curling pleasure from me with his fingers in mid-swim in the pit. ‘Freegid’ when I was laying in bed in November, curled to the wall like I was going to burrow into another cover or I was making room for a body to lay behind me to make me warm.

It did take me a while to finish this book, because there is a lot of sadness to wade through. Not to mention a feeling of hopeless uselessness – as you read these people prepare for a storm that is going to rip their lives asunder. But I was surprised that as the story progressed there was a lot of heart to be found in Esch’s family saga. There’s a feeling that in the aftermath of Katrina this family, no matter their flaws, will band together and find each other in the rubble.

No wonder Ward won the prestigious ‘National Book Award’ for ‘Salvage the Bones’. She writes a raw and honest portrayal of life before destruction – in an unflinching examination of what life is like for a good portion of the under-privileged population. Her words are disarmingly beautiful, and Esch is one character who stays with you long after the last page.


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