Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for some time, I remember when it was first published it was widely read by  bloggers, it won a National Book Award in the US and it is covered in esteemed comments from reviews within many well-known media titles.

“Beautifully written … A powerful depiction of grinding poverty, where somehow, amid the deprivation, the flame of filial affection survives and a genuine spirit of community is able to triumph over everything the system and nature can throw at it.” DAILY MAIL

I decided to read it now before her new novel comes out in November, Sing Unburied Sing (already on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction) and because with all the hurricanes and storms acting out currently, a novel set in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, seemed timely.

It’s a novel about a family struggling to stay together under already challenging circumstances, about to become even more trying with a grade 5 hurricane heading their way. It is set (as is the new novel) in a fictional, rural coastal town named Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Interestingly, the French edition of the novel is called Bois Sauvage, meaning Wild Wood, the author playing with the world savage and salvage, connected to the theme of survival.

It’s narrated from the point of view of fifteen year old Esch, the only girl in the family, their mother died after the long and difficult birth of Junior when she was eight years old. The children have adapted to living without their mother, though Esch is vulnerable in this all male environment which attracts other males, despite the protection of her brothers. She is becoming a woman, without another to guide her, and men who don’t know how to. Her only female reference is within the romantic tragic classic she is reading, referred to often throughout the text, the tragic anti-heroine Medea. Esch too is blinded by love and fearful of its outcome.

“In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.”

The father is an alcoholic and although that seems dire, the children are familiar with his habits and behaviours and seem to manage to keep out of his way when they need to and to care for him when he is a danger to himself.

For most of the novel the father is unable to do anything, he is either absent, asleep or suffering from an accident that  further reduces his ability to manage his role as father. Despite this, he pays attention to the preparations for the hurricane and even if he can’t do things himself, he doesn’t give up giving instructions to his children, the one thing he won’t fail at is to keep them safe.

The other main narrative concerns the plight of one of the son’s Skeetah’s prize pit bull China, who has given birth to pups that are extremely valuable, though nothing is more valuable to him than her, he rarely leaves her side, except to get food or medicine for her or her pups. It is a struggle for him to care for them all and the approaching hurricane will test his loyalty.

In all, the strongest feeling I am left with in reflecting on this novel is the effect of the mother and of the attempt by nearly all in this situation to act like her. The children prepare food and Esch’s thoughts often linger to nurturing thoughts, a sense that magnifies as her body begins to respond to the life she carries within it.

Although the mother is never present, her memory is held strong by Esch and fiercely through Skeetah, in his protection of China and her pups, Junior clammers for attention and affection, never having known her. They hold strong to how she made them feel and recognise that after the devastation, they can salvage what’s left and continue.

Medea is both the maiden and the mother, tender and vulnerable to love, fierce in her protection, loyal to her siblings and devastating in her revenge, she is the storm. She is the anti-thesis to the mother Esch remembers, but important for her survival, a warning against falling too far, while recognising how destabilising the emotions can be. Ward isn’t trying to recreate a version of Medea’s story, she uses it as reference, one that causes Esch to contemplate what is happening around her, even if it doesn’t always modify her behaviour, the emotions are too strong. Ultimately Medea will guide her.

As Esch, Randall and Junior walk through the debris after the hurricane has passed Esch picks up a piece of coloured glass, marbled blue and white and another that is red and a pink brick stone, remnants in the aftermath. Their friend Big Henry reminds her that he too will be there for them and it is a poignant moment for Esch, who squeezes the remnants tight in her hand:

“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us 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.”

Though it took me a while to read it, this is a book that stays with you, that continues to work on the reader long after the water has receded. It is a lament to the lone motherless adolescent and her siblings, to the courage of victims of natures destructive forces, to the ability of survivors to regroup, find solidarity, to continue, to the destabilising highs and lows of young love. And to universal themes and heroines of the classics, the stories we turn to, that ask and answer life’s questions, challenge us, inspire us. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s works?

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13 thoughts on “Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

  1. Claire, thank you for this beautiful review. I can imagine myself reading this, for I am compelled to be a part of their family. It also sounds like a book that has to be taken in measured doses to let it grow on us. And my heart is already after China. 💖❤

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    • You will indeed become part of the family when reading this book Deepika, there is a deep compassion between them, despite the sense of foreboding. This connection can save so many no matter how dire the circumstances and the animals are so much a part of the family. You will so get China, she’s almost human. ❤

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    • Thank you my friend, I have it here if you don’t find it. She’s written a memoir as well, it sounds like a challenging and traumatic work, incredible that she has managed to channel this experience into a literary work.

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  2. Lovely review. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped earlier this year, which is a memoir dedicated to the many young men in her life that died far too young. I suspect there is some overlap with this story, but if it’s a beautifully written as Men it’ll be well worth the read.

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    • I just read Valorie from Books Can Save a Life’s review of this memoir, it sounds incredible and it must have been incredibly difficult to write, but perhaps and I hope, a healing experience as well. I think there are elements of that story in her new novel Sing Unburied Sing from what I’ve read. She’s a talented writer, of that there is little doubt and I love how she used Greek mythology to inspire her character and enrich the story.

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  3. Read Sing, Unburied, Sing and was a little disappointed. Her writing was beautiful but structurally a mess and hated the magical realism elements which hindered my reading experience. Savage the Bones is going to be thinnest book I pick up by her. I have also read The fire This Time, a compilation of essays by the top young African-American writers writing about what’s it like to be black and living in the US today. That collection was EXCELLENT! Definitely a must read, I gave it 5 stars. I just hope I’ll like Salvage the Bones a lot more than Sing, Unburied, Sing.

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    • Interesting that it’s set in the same fictional town, so I already have an image of it. I love how she is able to depict the threads that keep people going despite the havoc around them. I guess she did that for herself as well, in writing the memoir, wrote her way through it to the other side and allowed readers to take the journey with her who may also have experienced something similar.

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  4. It’s been a while since I read ‘Salvage the Bones’ but I remember being left with a feeling that Jesmyn Ward’s prose aches with the kind of beauty that makes a disturbing story so compelling to read.

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