Friday, March 4, 2016

Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Author: Jesmyn Ward
Series: None
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: August 30, 2011
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 261 
Buy it on Amazon
Jesmyn Ward’s 2011, National Book Award Winner, Salvage the Bones, is a Hurricane Katrina survival story- but just barely. It is a detailed, realistic description of a Southern, rural, black, impoverished family, who survive on “canned Vienna sausages and uncooked Top Ramen” from the perspective of Esch Batiste, a pregnant fifteen-year-old. The story takes place roughly ten days before the storm, the day of Katrina and the day after. So, I read this novel in two days, protected by my Midwestern blanket of reality, and found myself absolutely appalled by the horrific living conditions and the characters’ financial inability to outrun the most devastating hurricane in US history. Reading this novel is like a car accident so horrible that you cannot peel your eyes away. How does this happen?

"And I get up because it is the only thing I can do." -Salvage the Bones

Even though Esch’s life was full of disappointment, horror and struggle, this book was full of hope. Esch still had hope for herself and for her unborn baby. She had a sexual relationship with her brother’s friend, Manny, and conceived her child. Even through the fear, her feelings toward this boy, who she describes as “golden,” allow her to fantasize about moving out of her father’s home, referred to as “the pit,” and into a loving home with Manny. But as the storm approaches, Esch discovers that Manny doesn’t reciprocate her feelings and denies responsibility of the baby. This sends Esch into a violent fury just days before the storm. She is left wondering: who will help her care for the baby?

 As emotional as Esch’s plight is, she largely ignores it for more description of the family’s daily life. Esch goes into painstaking detail of her brother, Skeetah’s intimate relationship with his prized fighting Pit-bull, China. Esch is in awe of his devotion to her even after she attacks and kills one of her own puppies. Her other brothers, Randall and Junior, alternate their time between helping their father prepare the house for the hurricane by filling old glass jars with water, boarding up windows with scraps of plywood and hanging out with friends. Even though Esch watches her father scrambling to salvage anything he can before the storm, she seems to be relatively unconcerned. It isn’t until water starts to seep up through the floorboards does she realize the actual danger. She starts to realize all the preparations were frivolous and they don’t have a backup plan. This is where the action really begins, roughly fifteen pages from the end.

"She left us a dark Gulf and a salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes." -Salvage the Bones

All the same, the gritty way Ward offers insight into this unknown realm of society is quite remarkable. She has a way of making shocking descriptions like China’s dog fights or Esch being pushed by her father into the swelling flood waters seem nonchalant in Esch’s eyes. The starvation, the heat, the stealing, the unprotected sex, the drunk abusive father, are all normal parts of Esch’s life and Ward takes no shortcuts in painfully describing each and every detail.
Ward works best inside Esch’s head, giving us beautiful memories of her mother intertwined with her dire current situation. Esch likes to read classics like Medea, and uses extravagant metaphors to help her deal with the isolation and fear she feels about her pregnancy. The tales also help her develop a stronger appreciation for her brothers and their special relationships, in which she finally discovers that they are on her side and will risk everything to save her. The theme that sibling love knows no bounds is certainly a memorable and unexpected one.
But would I recommend this book for someone looking for an action-packed survival account of Hurricane Katrina? Probably not because Hurricane Katrina is used merely as a plot device in this novel rather than the focus of the story. The action sequences associated with Katrina are to solidify the new found trust and respect Esch has for her brothers. However, in fair warning, if you decide to take on this unique coming of age story, it will break you down over and over, and make you realize how lucky you really are. 4.5 Stars

Have you read any other highly stylized, character driven novels like this one? I am torn whether I want to continue reading literary fiction or not.