“I understood then how that hurricane, like Camille, had unmade the world, tree by water by house by person. Even in language, it reduced us to improbable metaphor”
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, recipient of the 2011 National Book Award, narrates the lives of a family living in Mississippi days before Hurricane Katrina through the female protagonist, Esch. Esch is a fifteen year old girl who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant. She is surrounded by men in Bois Sauvage, a predominately black town on the Mississippi bayou. Mama has been dead for seven years, expired from the pains of pushing out Junior, and Daddy is an alcoholic struggling to maintain his meager existence. The only other woman of the house is China, her brother’s stark white and pregnant pitbull reared for fighting. Esch is raised by her older brothers Skeetah and Randall, and his group of friends: Manny, Big Henry, and Marquise.
In a strange sense, the male-dominated environment of pre-Katrina Bois Sauvage is more violent and devastating for Esch than the storm could ever be. Still a girl in boxy body, Esch has been forced into early womanhood by the absence of her mother. She gives her body over to the boys of her world, the only way she knows how to cope with her environment and her desires. She learns to the fierceness of womanhood through mythology and China. But Esch is also extremely intelligent, and she is romantic—she is a dreamer. In long and pleasurably lyrical passages, she waxes poetic about Manny, her baby’s father, comparing their love affair to the Greek myth of Medea (the sorceress who slays her children to punish her husband).
Critics have noted, quite negatively, the inconsistencies of Esch’s narrative voice in Salvage the Bones. In some instances she is childlike; seeming younger than her 15 years, she recalls memories of Mama and is fiercely attached to her siblings. At other times, her inward thoughts reflect the voice of someone much older and wiser, waxing poetic about Medea and “the trickster nymphs, the ruthless goddesses, the world-uprooting mothers” (15). I actually like this aspect of the novel. I think it captures, rightfully, the in-betweeness, the liminal quality of adolescence and the impending psychic shift of youths who must become adults overnight. In an interview at the back of the book, Ward states, “Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch’s too, because Esch understands her vulnerability” (264). Ward also goes on to discuss the ghettoizing of African American fiction and her embrace of writers like Faulkner. Working against the stereotypes of what black literature is, Ward weaves greek mythology in the narrative, challenging the conventions of what a black-novel-about-hurricane-katrina can be.
Along with its beautiful language, the novel’s strongest element is its pacing. Divided into twelve chapters, Salvage the Bones tells of the twelve days leading up to Katrina. Tensions mounts as the storm grows closer, as the baby inside of Esch grows and Manny becomes distant, and as Skeetah desperately tries to protect his family and his beloved China. The novel is also gritty, fleshly, attentive to the visceral qualities of language. I’m also interested in how she uses landscape (naturally), bodily fluids, and food Salvage the Bones. The food in particular is scarce and stomach-turning. Daddy, largely absent, provides Ramen noodles and canned goods for each meal, and the little sustenance Esch eats, she can’t keep down. Following delivery, China eats the runt of her litter—reminding the reader of Esch’s mother, expended by childbirth, and the baby inside of Esch.
I’m also thinking about how Salvage the Bones represents reproduction as a rite of passage that has the potential to devastate. Mama’s death due to childbearing complications leaves Esch alone and ill-equipped for her “savage” bayou town. China and her puppies’ disappearance signals a new economic low for the family. Doom shrouds Esch’s unborn baby. I’m still thinking about the title, “salvage the bones.” I think it reflects how the characters of the novel are continuously working to recover the remains of whatever is left for them after devastation. In the end of the novel, Skeetah must choose between saving China and Esch, and in an attempt to salvage what’s left of his motherless (and pretty much fatherless) family, saves her. Having survived, Skeetah, Randall and Esch explore the ruins of Bois Sauvage, salvaging liquor for their father who will soon experience withdrawal symptoms. The family tries to recover what memories they have of Mama, using her euphemisms and telling her stories.
Even though Salvage the Bones ends abruptly—there are no answers, no balms for wounds, no hint at hopeful futures. I don’t know what to do with the novel’s abrupt ending. On the one hand, the mere survival of Esch and her family attests to their strength and implies that even though they are indelibly changed, they will move on. On the other hand, Esch is still surrounded by men, pregnant, and among ruins. I think the most tragic aspect of Salvage the Bones is the implication that Esch is stuck in this “unmade” world, her creativity and intelligence stifled in a place that only fosters fight within its inhabitants.
*Sidenote: Salvage the Bones reminds me so much of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both Hushpuppy and Esch are children forced to maturate early because of poverty, isolation and natural disaster. I’m also interested in how both the novel and film navigate between two worlds, one real and one fantastic. My inclination is to say that whimsy is the representation of childishness, a way of seeing the world through the eyes of a child, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening in these texts. There’s something about the focus on coping, endurace. Small daily traumas seem to be equated to the catastrophic ones as Esch and Hushpuppy weather daily storms of rural and impoverished black life.