Have you ever read a book and it was like starting a car in the dead of winter? The motor took a few minutes (or pages or chapters) to get warmed up? Then when the heat kicked in the car was on fire and ready to go? That’s what SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward was for me. It started off with a little lull as I figured out the characters, setting, and what was going on. By the first third of the book, I couldn’t put it down. When I finished it I thought, “Well, that was pretty brilliant.”
Generally, I’m a slow reader. (I hate this trait.) While others gobble up the books, I have to savor the words, reread a sentence, stop and visualize it, and then read the passage all over again. Sounds like a book can be better than ice cream! Trust me, it can be, and I’m not saying that because I’m lactose intolerant.
SALVAGE THE BONES takes place in a fictional city in New Orleans named Bois Sauvage with Hurricane Katrina brewing in the background. The area that the characters live is known as “The Pit.” Doesn’t sound too promising, right? It’s not. It’s truly as if they’re in a hole and can’t dig their way out. It’s almost like the grasshopper analogy…cover the jar with the lid and eventually the grasshopper will stop trying to get out. But they do try to make their way out of The Pit with hopes of … well let me slow down and introduce you to the narrator, how about that?
The story is told by teenaged Esch. She’s the only girl in the family of three boys, Randall, Skeetah, and Junior. Their mother died after birthing Junior, leaving her dad the sole parent.
When I read reviews, I get summaries of the book. I hate that. So, I won’t be torturing you with another summary. I’ll share with you why you need to read this book.
The prose is brilliant.
I couldn’t put my finger on why I was feeling some kind of way while reading this novel. Well, not until I finished it. For me, this story is all about setting and weather. The way Ward tells this story, I felt the stifling heat right along with the characters. The stiff heat was not only the weather, but also due to the limits of poverty. The Pit is nothing but an old, tired house with junk, trash, and dirt surrounding it and a pond that they frequently swim. But still, the future of the characters are stifled.
I feel it in Esch’s longing. She wants the attention and love of her brother’s friend, Manny. Thoughts of him consume her. I wish her mother was alive to teach her to love herself. How many girls fall into Esch’s trap of giving their bodies away freely and never getting unconditional love in return? This desperate longing is felt throughout the novel and the thread is never lost. Esch isn’t the only character longing. On the surface, Dad’s a lazy drunk. However, I see him as a depressed man who desperately misses his wife. He still wears his wedding band and has never remarried for heavens sake. He channels his thoughts by furiously preparing for the hurricane. I’m feeling sad thinking about the longing in this book.
Remember what I said about trying to get out of The Pit? Randall, the oldest, has dreams of going to a basketball camp. The heartbeat of the story is young Skeetah. His loves his pit bull, China, more than life itself. China’s puppies could be a money-maker for the family, too, or so they hope.
Here’s the thing about this book…although you feel the weight of nothingness, it doesn’t seem like a burden to the characters. There’s no self-pity. It’s a way of life for them and unfortunately, it is what it is. Poor black folks. You’ve seen images of them crossing the bridge or waving from their roof tops for help all over CNN during Katrina. Yet, I don’t feel hopelessness for this fictitious family because they don’t see it for themselves–even when they realize that all they will ever have is The Pit.
I love how this family isn’t one of strife. These kids look out for one another like a pact of wolves. The boys let Esch hang around them and don’t assign her gender roles. They protect each other, fight for one another, stand up to and support even when all seems lost. They are a family of survivors (in more ways than one. I’m dying to tell you how, but I can’t! *holding lips tight*).
The hurricane parallels their lives. The book starts off slow just like the beginning of a storm. Then it begins to pick up a little speed with China and her puppies, Esch’s body developments, Dad’s incessant talk and prep for the hurricane. These things are only taking shape. Yet, the author brilliantly (did I say brilliant again?) keeps these threads in front of our minds along with the thick air, sticky breezes, and swirling dust. By the time Skeetah is walking China through the woods…whoa, my heart was beating fast.
This novel is not for the faint of heart because it has a graphic dog fight scene. At first, I was a bit squeamish, but I realized the graphicness was there because the lives of these characters are graphic. Their lives aren’t pretty or sheltered or water-colored with pleasantries. The dog fight is the children’s way to get out of The Pit. (Think of the horrible actions of the kids in LORD OF THE FLIES…what happens when children fend for themselves.) I have to admit, by the time the dog fight takes place, I secretly prayed for the hurricane to come so they would be forced to call the fight.
Just as setting and weather is strong in this novel, Mama’s character is very much alive. Everyone yearns for Mama and we feel this by Esch’s memories. You get a sense of the loss in the house. Mama was the rope that tied them together.
I always want to see how other writers of color describe ourselves or how they infuse some of our “issues” or nuances into the story. Ward does indeed find a way to add a few tidbits in the midst of all of the wonderful plot threads. For instance, Esch still manages the essence of girlhood with a house full of male characters. And, we definitely get a sense of her life as a black female with this small passage:
“I pulled back my hair in a ponytail. It was my one good thing…” Meaning she had “good hair” and not regular nappy hair.
“But I looked in the mirror and knew the rest of me wasn’t so remarkable: wide nose, dark skin, Mama’s slim, short frame with all the curves folded in so that I looked square.”
I do love how these characters are real. The issues are real. When I tell you that I felt hot and sticky, I mean it. I’m in awe as to how Jesmyn Ward weaved magic to take me out of my house and into the savage heat of Bois Sauvage.
Unfortunately, I can only give you a little taste of the novel. I can’t give you spoiler alerts about Esch and her issue, the results of the dog fight, the puppies, or the other boys who hang out at The Pit–and I most certainly didn’t tell you about the Hurricane. You must read to see how Ward writes about it! You have to know!
As America just watched clips from the Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it would be pretty amazing to see how someone–even fictitious–might have lived before the disaster hit. Whether we approve of their lifestyle or not, whether we would never subject an animal to a dog fight…SALVAGE THE BONES is an amazing read and will open your eyes to a world that doesn’t reflect yours.