Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, follows adolescent girl, Esch, and her family struggling to survive among the wreckage of their mother’s death several years prior. Esch has just become pregnant. Her brother Skeet fights for his beloved pit bull China, who’s just had pups. Her brother Randall prepares for the “big game” that will determine his fate as a basketball star. Their little brother Junior is wholly dependant on them all. What is at stake for this family comes starkly to the fore of this intimate and brutal narrative set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, in the days before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.
Ward creates a palpable tone of menace that carries throughout the novel. There is a looming sense of loss, of disaster. We see Esch, Skeet, and Randall’s desires fall into peril. Will Manny, the father of Esch’s child, disown her when he discovers the pregnancy? Will Skeet lose his beloved China and her pups? Ward evokes in the mercurial dog, China, a symbol of life and death, of intimacy and destruction. She is both menacing and matronly. She gives life, and she brutally takes it away. Ward’s poetic language and imagery brings beauty to the ugliness of this world, beauty that is repeatedly shattered in moments of naturalistic brutality that catch one’s breath.
Ward evokes the family bond with great skill. She doesn’t have to rely on exposition or sentimentality. In the actions, gestures, dialogue, and choices of the characters, love reveals itself, without having to thrust a spotlight on it. The family is nearly always present in the narrative. Whether it is Randal simply throwing a basketball in the air and catching it— they are always there. Thus we feel the family as a collective extension of the protagonist herself.
Love is the root of the central characters, Esch and Skeet, reaching out into the world. Skeet has big ambitions for his beloved China that play out in a dog fighting ring in the woods. Esch desperately pines over Manny, her baby intensifying and adding significance to her desire.
Love is not a romanticized but rather an ordinary thing, but very powerful. It creates great stakes, such that each loss that the novel witnesses is subtly tragic.
Esch and Skeet reach out with their desires. Desire is always mixed up with brutality. Ward is careful to acknowledge love’s bloodied fang. We see the contradiction of intimacy and brutality in Ward’s powerful description of the climactic dog fight, where China and her opponent struggle, first as if kissing, then tearing, gashing, revealing pulpy meat. In the dog fight Ward evokes the tangible battle between Esch and her family and Manny and his.
One feels deeply the toughness of the survivor. Toughness comes from being part of whole: having to keep one’s self together in order for the whole to survive. As Esch does at one point in the book after being disowned by Manny, by swallowing her terrible grief and getting up off the floor because her brother needs her for something. Love is anchored in the family bond, and all forms of desire reaching outside of this are dashed.
Ward brings the looming sense of doom that pervades the novel to a momentous climax as Katrina hits Bois Sauvage. Then we witness the family scrambling to survive as a whole. What must be sacrificed for this to happen is devastatingly poignant. The scope of the characters’ loyalties winnows down over the course of the novel: from the group of friends, including Manny, to the family and the dogs and their home, and finally, solely, to the familial bonds themselves. Out of destruction is a new world. The book begins with the family having adapted to the world without the mother, and ends with a second rearrangement of the world by Katrina. One in which all any of them possess is the blood bond. Ambition and desire must be shucked to save this bond. And the journey that Ward takes us through to the end, in the aftermath of the hurricane, leaves us shocked, stunned, yet with a sense of affirmation. That these adolescents are shedding their youth in the process of surviving. That they will continue to survive because of each other. The world of the narrative is dismantled and put back together in an unexpected way. In surveying the wreckage of the old elementary school where in a single day the moment of Randall’s only chance for success on the basketball court clashed with Esch’s opening her secret to Manny and the drama that ensued, Esch thinks: “I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it.” So we witness in this novel a kind of coming of age where what matters most, what can be salvaged, is brought to light only when all the dreams, desires, and hopes covering it face destruction. And Ward uses the brutality of humanity and nature to shear away layers of attachment, illusion and desire, presenting us with the bare bones of what is meaningful in this world in a manner stunning, shocking, palpable, and unflinchingly true.
Ken Israel is the fiction editor at Phoebe.